Technology

The Language of Innovation: We're Using the Wrong Words

By / Mar 10, 2015

When you’re thinking about how to change your organization’s fortunes, you won’t come up with the really good stuff if you’re focused on your limitations. At ASAE’s 2015 Great Ideas Conference this week, a longtime association thought leader highlighted the way language can set our expectations for innovation.

A few weeks ago, an app blew up the end of social media that gets obsessed about new products. (If you haven’t been to Product Hunt, go.)

The app was so simple that it felt unencumbered by all the stuff that usually slows down innovation—questions like “So, is this gonna work?” or comments like “This sounds risky.”

The developers called their lovechild Magic, and it does one thing really well—it allows you to text a number, and suddenly the onus for finding stuff, ordering dinner, or booking a flight is on someone else’s shoulders. All you gotta do is tell them what you want, and—as long as it’s legal—they’ll just do it, like magic.

The app’s creators, who built the entire thing in just two days, somehow found a new level of simplicity that other life-simplifying startups like Push for Pizza or Instacart couldn’t even imagine.

Simply put, an association would be unlikely to come up with such a stupid-simple idea, because stakeholders would be quick to second-guess it. It’s anathema to the risk-averse to suggest a product like this.

Which leads me to Jeff De Cagna’s talk at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Orlando this week. In a learning lab session on the nature of innovation, the Principled Innovation founder pointed out that many associations are often encumbered by discussions on innovation that circle around the ideas of risk, challenge, and fear.

If we talk about innovation in terms of how risky it is or how challenging it is, we aren’t thinking in terms of our stakeholders.

(His strategy for doing this was sneaky: He asked people to talk to their neighbors about innovation, emphasizing that they listen closely to each other. Then he asked  audience members to share what their neighbors said. Almost universally, it was about the headaches of innovation, rather than the benefits. Clever.)

De Cagna noted that this line of thought is often a dead end, focusing on internal challenges rather than on the people who benefit from an organization’s work.

“If we talk about innovation in terms of how risky it is or how challenging it is, we aren’t thinking in terms of our stakeholders,” he said.

To get us thinking in terms of stakeholders, De Cagna focused his presentation on five key words:

Empathy. Ultimately, we build better products when we’re thinking about what we know our stakeholders will want. By framing our conversations in this way, it ensures that we’re putting the user first. “Without that emphatic understanding, our data is devoid of context,” he noted.

Relationships. Ultimately, associations build relationships. Many do this through membership, De Cagna noted, but this is often a means to an end. (As you might know, he’s a big advocate of thinking beyond membership.) When building your innovation strategy, emphasizing relationships should be a key goal.

Networks. This isn’t networking in the “social networking” sense or even the “internet” sense. This refers mostly to the way an idea spreads through communities. “One of the beautiful things about networks is that they have no respect for the boundaries we put up,” De Cagna said. “Networks go right through them.”

Collaboration. Too often, organizations face internal barricades to getting stuff done. De Cagna’s solution is gently nudging but brilliant. Rather than criticize the work of others, he suggests asking a question starting with the phrase: “What if we …” The goal is to use a line of conversation that opens up collaboration opportunities.

Design. The right visuals and organization help give shape to the new things you’re doing and create emotional connections.

Ultimately, De Cagna’s thoughts on this matter highlight a fundamental problem of many tech initiatives in the association space: Too often, associations focus on the risk at the cost of potential reward.

The app I mentioned above, Magic, is an awesome idea, but it’s the kind of thing that would only come out of an environment where people are primarily thinking in terms of what the user wants, putting aside logistical concerns and organizational demands. In the environment that produced Magic, the first question on the table started with “What if we …”, and the creators didn’t stop until they had the answer. That approach turns pitfalls into potential.

The real point here: By letting all that extra stuff get in the way, you miss out on significant opportunities. The reason the words matter so much is they reflect an attitude. Do you want yours to be at odds with innovation?

It’s an uphill battle, but if you can rewire the language at your own association, the benefits could be massive.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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