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:
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.)
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:
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.