“In summary, language functions as a filter of perception, memory, and attention.”
—Antonio Benítez-Burraco Ph.D.
It’s been said that everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. In many organizations, the same can be said about reinvention and future growth.
From boardrooms to cubicle conversations, organizations around the world are buzzing about the possibilities of disruption, moonshots, and 10x outcomes. Business and tech media are brimming with hype about technology breakthroughs, nimble startups, and the rapid reinvention of traditional industries.
This hype may be entertaining, but it’s not productive and could actually be harmful to organizations that might make decisions based on this sensationalized information. In fact, our understanding of exponential technology and future trends have a huge bearing on our future success—it can mean the difference between success and failure. Active discussion and ideation are a great start, but ideas themselves are of little value if your organization doesn’t have a way to capture and develop them to support the real work of reaching the future first.
We live—and work—in transformational times
As exponential technologies emerge and converge, they continue to drive sweeping changes that are rapidly reshaping every organization and industry. The rate of change itself is accelerating, which challenges our ability to understand the complex technological, economic, and cultural effects that arise.
Future planning is incredibly challenging. What’s the right way to have productive discussions about something that’s unknowable and doesn’t exist yet? We’re trying to understand exponential concepts using our incremental human brains that evolved in a world where such concepts were unknown.
The language we use profoundly influences the way we think and act. Yet we often overlook the importance of language in building culture and communities. Connecting innovation teams with your broader organization is a challenge for enterprise companies, but it’s necessary to support future growth. Here are several ways to use the language of innovation effectively in your organization:
1. Adopt a common language for exponential growth
It may seem like a creativity-killer to have everyone in your organization use the same terminology in the same way, but the opposite is true. A common language helps build a shared culture of progress and streamlines communications between stakeholders with various skills and backgrounds. There are no well-defined standards and practices for envisioning the future, as there are for accounting, for example. I love the insights from cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky that language shapes the way we think and that people who speak different languages pay attention to different things. If you want your entire team to pay attention to shared goals and future growth, encourage them to speak a shared language!
2. Define and standardize the use of your organization’s unique terminology
When terms like innovation and disruption are used interchangeably, confusion reigns.
For example, author and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen uses the term disruptive innovation specifically as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”
This definition covers a specific type of innovation, not just an instance of a traditional industry being shaken up by a fast-growing startup that’s become so common these days. It’s not essential to adopt the exact terminology and definitions used by others, but within your own organization, terminology must be clearly defined and applied consistently.
3. Transform business-speak into growth-speak
Inspire your leaders to become proficient in switching from traditional business language to the language of future growth because the communications that got us here won’t get us there. The models and language we used to succeed in traditional business are useful but inadequate to help us reach future goals. It’s not necessary to abandon your organization’s current way of communicating about your core businesses, but your team needs to be fluent in a separate language of reinvention and future growth.
Research has shown that switching languages helps to switch your perspectives—a powerful tool to contemplate future scenarios. At Singularity University, we often use the term ambidexterity to describe an organization’s ability to balance organizational objectives and focus between the present and the future. It’s understood that leaders need to focus on achieving both 10 percent improvements and 10x growth.
The reason we use the word Radical is that the kind of candor we’re talking about is rare. It feels unnatural to practice it. Radical Candor means Challenging Directly while also showing that you Care Personally. #RadicalCandor #WisdomWednesday pic.twitter.com/WQGxs2MTYp
— Kim Scott (@kimballscott) October 10, 2018
4. Engage in radical candor throughout your organization
At Singularity University, we have firmly adopted the concept and practice of radical candor. It’s a simple concept that, according to author Kim Scott, means “saying what you think, while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.” While frank discussion, debate, and disagreement are critical to surfacing the best ideas to move your organization forward, an atmosphere of caring and collaboration makes that level of candor possible…and remarkably productive.
Organizations in the midst of transformation for future growth must get comfortable with challenging and emotionally charged conversations. Your organization cannot become an exponential enterprise without your team being empowered to ask difficult questions about your mission, goals, and strategy. Your job as a leader is to create a culture where difficult questions and different perspectives are welcome—even encouraged—from all members of your organization. If you’re not having difficult conversations, you may not be aiming high enough.
5. Cultivate a culture of experimentation and data-driven decision making
The language of reinvention should support a culture of experimentation that’s informed by data. After you’ve arrived at a shared definition of what reinvention means to your organization, you must agree on how to measure your outcomes and success. That means shared objectives must be supported by shared metrics that help your organization make better, faster decisions.
Your metrics should enable you to easily assess your new project progress and contributions to future value. Ours is a data-driven world, and the organizations that will be successful in the future will grow with the strength of data-backed insights and decisions. Again, consistency is the key, and you should provide a common reference point for innovation activities as well as a shared language.
6. Diversity and inclusion are critical to organizational—and humanity’s—survival
Finally, the language of reinvention is the language of diversity and inclusion. We all know the limitations of staffing projects with team members who think like ourselves—limited perspectives and an echo-chamber of similar ideas. But even though research shows that diverse teams are skilled at solving problems and are more productive and profitable, managing teams with different backgrounds and experience can be a challenge. Creating a common language fosters effective communication and collaboration between people with varying backgrounds. The shared language your leadership uses can inspire and encourage people of all backgrounds to mobilize and enable your organization to thrive in the future.
In an age of accelerating change, we know that solutions to the world’s biggest challenges are best achieved when everyone contributes. That’s why, at Singularity University, we aim to ensure that diversity is an integral part of the learning, leadership, and community experiences we deliver.
Using language to envision and build the future
We’re strong believers that the exponential growth of technology is a fundamental driver of accelerating change, but technology alone is not enough—it will not provide a lasting advantage for your organization. The foundation for sustainable success begins and ends with people. The advantages that game-changing technologies like AI, robotics, quantum computing, and nanotechnology provide for you are also available to your competitors.
The culture and capabilities you build around transformation and the application of exponential technologies are what enable you to create differentiated value that your competitors can’t match. We always say at SU that the first step to transformational change is shifting your mindset to realize what’s possible…and it always starts with people. The next steps for exponential leaders: master and disseminate the language of exponential growth to ensure you can clearly articulate your vision and effectively align your organization around it. Only then can you lead a transformation that will uncover sources of measurable and lasting impact to benefit your organization, customers, and partners. Now is the time to explore, envision, and build the future.