My colleague Piyush and I recently got into a heated debate about one of Innosight’s portfolio companies.
“The company needs to start raising money soon, or it is never going to realize its full potential,” Piyush argued.
“That’s utter baloney,” I responded. “The company is already in market and earning revenue. It needs to figure out its business model before it raises more money.”
Piyush looked at me blankly. At first I thought the brilliance of my argument had stunned him into silence. Then I thought perhaps it was because he is a vegetarian and didn’t appreciate the meat reference.
Then it dawned on me. “You don’t know what baloney means, do you?” I asked.
“I know it is some kind of lunch product, but what does it have to do with our discussion?” Piyush responded.
“Baloney” as a shorthand way of saying “that’s not correct” was vernacular that hadn’t made it to Singapore.
Even though the official language of Singapore is English, and people in most places that I visit in the region speak amazingly good English, it was yet another painful reminder that there are language differences across the globe. Anyone who likes a good sports metaphor knows this. Say “hit a home run” and people in India might look at you blankly (“sticky wicket” works well, however). A “touchdown” refers to the end of a mundane flight not some dramatic event, unless the audience contains American football or rugby fans.
This “common language” barrier is one of the hidden challenges that can inhibit innovation inside large companies. Here’s a simple test. Gather six people from your company together. Have each of them write down on a piece of paper their definition of innovation, and who in the company should be working on innovation. I am willing to bet that you’ll get a range of different answers.
In the foreword to my 2008 book The Innovator’s Guide to Growth, Harvard Business School Professor and Innosight co-founder Clayton Christensen provided a great story about the value of a common language:
One of the best-known stories in the disruption literature — how in the 1990s Intel recognized and responded to the threats emerging at the low end of its microprocessor business — had a huge common-language component. In the late 1990s, I went out to Intel about twenty times, educating about one hundred managers at a time on the principles and language of disruptive innovation. Some time after going through the sessions, Intel launched what is now known as the Celeron processor, a stripped-down, low-cost chip to compete in the least-demanding tiers in its industry. The Celeron processor slowed the advances of disruptive attackers such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Cyrix, and became a substantial business for Intel.
Education played a critical role in helping Intel formulate and execute the Celeron strategy. After the Celeron had successfully entered the market, Andy Grove, then Intel’s CEO, told me, “You know, the disruptive model didn’t give us any answers to any of the problems, but it gave us a common language and a common way to frame the problem so that we could reach consensus around counterintuitive courses of action.”
In my experience, companies that are world class at creating growth through innovation have clear consensus around:
The overarching definition of innovation
Innovation categories (e.g., core vs. new growth, disruptive vs. sustaining)
The owner of each category
The next time you use the word “innovation,” don’t assume people actually know what you are talking about. It might be baloney to them. Take the time to ensure everyone speaks the same language to avoid confusion and focus innovation efforts.