Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

implementing innovations

Innovation’s Speech Impediment

It's not a good idea if I don't understand it.

It’s not a good idea if I don’t understand it.

One of the most important obstacles to innovation is the cultural rift between technical and non-technical managers. The problem is not the technology per se, but the communication of the technology. Simply put, technologists often baffle non-technical executives and baffled executives won’t support change.

To promote innovation, we need to master the art of speaking between two different cultures: technical and non-technical. We need to find a common language and vocabulary. Most importantly, we need to speak to business needs and opportunities, not to the technology itself.

In my Managing Technology class, my students act as the CIO of a fictional company called Vair. The students study Vair’s operations (in a 12-page case study) and then recommend how technical innovations could improve business operations.

Among other things, they present a technical innovation to a non-technical audience. They always come up with interesting ideas and useful technologies. And they frequently err on the side of being too technical. Their presentations are technically sound but would be baffling to most non-technical executives.

Here are the tips I give to my students on giving a persuasive presentation to a non-technical audience. I thought you might find them useful as well.

Benefits and the so what question – we often state intermediary benefits that are meaningful to technologists but not meaningful to non-technical executives. Here’s an example, “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications”. Technologists know what that means and can intuit the benefits. Non-technical managers can’t. To get your message across, run a so what dialogue in your head,

Statement: “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That will allow us to achieve X.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That means we can increase Y and reduce Z.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “Our stock price will increase by 12%”

Asking so what three or four times is usually enough to get to a logical end point that both technical and non-technical managers can easily understand.

Give context and comparisons – sometimes we have an idea in mind and present only that idea, with no comparisons. We might, for instance, present J.D. Edwards as if it’s the only choice in ERP software. If you were buying a house, you would probably look at more than one option. You want to make comparisons and judge relative value. The same holds true in a technology presentation. Executives want to believe that they’re making a choice rather than simply rubber-stamping a recommendation. You can certainly guide them toward your preferred solution. By giving them a choice, however, the executives will feel more confident that they’ve chosen wisely and, therefore, will support the recommendation more strongly.

Show, don’t tell – chances are that technologists have coined new jargon and acronyms to describe the innovation. Chances are that non-technical people in the audience won’t understand the jargon — even if they’re nodding their heads. Solution: use stories, analogies, or examples:

  • Stories – explain how the innovation came about, who invented it, and why. Put real people in the story. Explain what problems existed before the innovation arrived. How is the world better now?
  • Analogies – compare it to something that the audience knows and understands. A Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), for instance, is remarkably similar to a modular stereo system.
  • Examples – tell the story of other companies that are using the technology. What benefits have they gained?

Words, words, words – often times we prepare a script for a presentation and then put most of it on our slides. The problem is that the audience will either listen to you or read your slides. They won’t do both. You want them to listen to you – you’re much more important than the slides. You’ll need to simplify your slides. The text on the slide should capture the headline. You should tell the rest of the story.

If you follow these tips, the executives in your audience are much more likely to comprehend the innovation’s benefits. If they comprehend the benefits, they’re much more likely to support the innovation.

(If you’d like a copy of the Vair case study, just send me an e-mail. I’m happy to share it.)

Innovation: Free Port Rules

Nice place to develop an idea.

An employee has generated a good idea. Your company’s Idea First Responders have accepted the idea, stabilized it, and started to transport it to the next phase of your innovation process. And where should they take it? One good place is the Free Port.

Free Ports of old accepted ships of all nations and gave them safe harbor. That’s a good model for harboring and developing new business ideas.  An Idea Free Port may be as simple as a department manager’s “good idea” file. Or it may be a prestigious, cross-departmental committee tasked with the development and implementation of good ideas. Your Free Port should adopt rules that conform to your company culture.  Here are some guidelines:

  • (Almost) all ideas are welcome — in general, ideas enter the Free Port via Idea First Responders (IFR). In other words, IFRs do some vetting. You can set the vetting guidelines to your company’s needs — from very stringent to very loose. All IFRs have to understand the rules in the same way. If an IFR says the idea meets the guidelines, then it enters the Free Port.
  • Free Port Registry — if you encourage creativity in your company, you’ll get a lot of good ideas. You can’t implement all of them — at least, not all at once. So, one function of the Free Port is to keep track of ideas lest you forget them.
  • Compare & Evaluate — since you’ll have more ideas than you can handle, the Free Port committee will need to compare ideas and decide which ones should move forward ahead of others.  These are tough, often emotional decisions. A Free Port committee needs a transparent and widely accepted set of questions to evaluate ideas.. Your questions will vary depending on your needs.  My favorite question is: which idea will deliver the greatest good to the greatest number of customers?  Other useful questions may include: Which ideas will bring us new customers either by offering more or less than our current products offer? Which ideas would our competitors never dare to try?
  • Fear of failure causes failure — business plans are based on the past. A truly innovative idea has no past — so you can’t write detailed plans for it. You have to try it out and see if it works. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. The Free Port committee needs a mechanism allowing it to experiment without fear of failure. You can do this at an individual level by offering “get out of jail free” cards. At the department level (or higher), you may need a special “it may fail but let’s try it” fund.
  • Free Port Reports — it will take time to organize, sort, and develop the many ideas that will enter the Free Port. Your employees will wonder what’s going on. After a while, they may even wonder if this is another cynical management ploy. The Free Port has to keep employees informed. A simple method is to publish meeting minutes. From time to time however, Free Port leaders should report to employees in person, with ample time for a robust Q&A. (You’ll develop a lot of new ideas in these sessions).

Free Ports can get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape. To avoid this, keep meetings brief and keep measurements rough. (New ideas are notoriously hard to measure. Don’t overdo it.) Also, keep the CEO involved. She can resolve disputes quickly and make the many judgment calls that need to be made. Her presence will also remind people of how important the Free Port really is.

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