The Rhetoric Of Innovation

By Henry Doss, Chief Strategy Officer of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes

I do not pretend to start with precise questions. I do not think you can start with anything precise.  You have to achieve such precision as you can, as you go along.  — Bertrand Russel

The biggest challenge organizations face in building and nurturing and leading innovative cultures is language. Not plans. Not ideas. Not action items. Not even creativity. It is language.

When it comes to organizational languages, we have plenty of words for commands, for directions, for setting expectations.   Declaring that something needs to be done and then describing how to do it comes naturally.   This is the language of strategic plans, of goals, of reports, of evaluations.  The rhetoric of command is something that most leaders and most organizations understand and can respond to, and it is the language that we default to in order to run railroads and to get stuff done.  After all, command works.  Things get done when we speak in the language of command.

But the language of command is not the language of innovation.  If we are to talk precisely about innovation, in a shared language and a shared nomenclature, we need to realize that innovation requires a domain all its own.  Innovation requires a distinct rhetoric and its own realm of meaning and nuance and distinctions.  Speaking about and to innovation is not the same thing as speaking about or to specific outcomes. When we speak about innovation, we are speaking about states of being, of system conditions, of potential.  The language of innovation is a language about culture, and for this reason, it must be a language of narrative, and stories and tales.

In many organizations, there is a demand for doing innovation, a demand to deploy innovation tactics and strategies, a demand for innovative output.  This amounts to demanding innovation in command language, which is like a demand in English to speak French.  Demanding that an organization innovate is akin to demanding that a rock roll uphill.  The demand is clear, the actors are clearly defined, and the goal is clear.  But, the outcome is at best unlikely.  In the case of the rock, that is because there is not adequate potential energy to be transformed into kinetic energy.  At least not enough to roll uphill.

Innovation thinking and innovation language store up the potential energy of an organization; they don’t release kinetic energy.   Innovation language creates the culture, the conditions, the state of being that is necessary if innovative output is to be realized.   Innovation does not really “do” anything;  it is the condition, the state of being, where organizations begin to build up potential energy, potential innovative output.  Without the potential energy of innovation culture, the kinetic energy of command will simply not work.  Or, at best, it will work at very low efficiency levels.

We may think of this as a requirement for organizational leaders to speak two languages, to understand two different dialects, and to speak from two completely different points of view — at the same time.  At one point we might talk about output — products, patents, updates, improvements, and so on — all of which we might be able to describe in rather precise language, and in terms we all share in common.  We are comfortable with this language because it is empirical, accessible and common.  But it is incomplete.  At the same time that we are speaking the language of command, we need also to speak the language of innovation, of culture, of those things that occur to us as less empirical.  If we use the term “innovation” the same way we use the term “innovate,” we will create cultural confusion.  This is because “innovation” is best used to describe a cultural state, while “innovate” is an action term, a deliverable, an output.  They are different things.

Confusion follows when we conflate the language of innovation and the language of command.  Innovation language should speak to and about values, and beliefs and conditions.  Innovation language coaxes, encourages, nurtures and fosters high potential.  Command language is kinetic, and causes action.  Either one alone is inadequate for high levels of performance excellence.  In combination, they are magic.

More often than not, organizational leaders get trapped into the language of command.  They get lured into seeing direct connections between commands and action.  They can speak a command and something happens and over time this connection seems a priori.   But creating an innovation culture — which is building the innovation potential of organizations — is not a place where the language of command will work.  You simply cannot command individuals to trust.  You cannot declare: “Be more networked!”  You cannot just decide that everyone in your organization will suddenly value diverse points of view.  These are cultural conditions, and they are emergent of the rhetoric and narrative of your organization, not declarations.

At its simplest, innovation and the rhetoric of narrative that creates innovation states can be thought of as storing up potential energy.  Potential energy — states of being of innovative cultures — is latent.  It is there and ready when ideas and creativity and ambition and sense of purpose call on it, and in turn convert potential innovative cultural energy into kinetic energy — output.  The best ideas and creativity in the world coming into low potential, low-innovation states of culture, will simply wither away.  Ideas die.  But, even modest ideas landing in highly innovative cultures acquire power and direction and energy.  And things happen.  Good things.

The trick is to remember that innovation — a noun describing a condition — and innovate — a verb describing action — are two very different things, and they require two different ways of thinking and speaking.   We might say that the rhetoric of innovate resides in command and the rhetoric of innovation resides in trust. And the two are confused to the peril of an organization’s future.

Henry Doss believes leadership can change the world.  He is a venture capitalist, a volunteer in higher education, a student and a musician.

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