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The Language of Innovation
Conversations in our corporate world are stuck in the industrial age. In a language that reflects command-and-control principles. What if we spoke a different language?
Spot originally gave this talk at World IA Day in Zurich on February 23, 2019.
The “Newspeak” of a dystopian future
George Orwell’s novel “1984” speaks of a future where the ruling party has created a new language called “Newspeak”. It has one goal: to serve the needs of the ruling party by making all other modes of thought impossible. It operates through the concept of “Doublethink”, which makes statements like “Freedom is slavery” and “War is peace” possible. Two contradictory beliefs that otherwise could not stand side by side. Like this, anything the ruling party says becomes “the truth”.
Now let’s exchange some words.
- War is BUSINESS
- Freedom is MONEY
- Ignorance is SUCCESS
Does this spark a feeling of discomfort? How many business books you have read that compare business with war? “Business means war.” “Competition is the enemy.” How many conversations have you had about how money makes you free? You just have to work hard enough to liberate yourself. When was the last time you made a decision that, knowingly or unknowingly, served your personal success but ignored physical, mental or financial damage it did to others? The reality we constructed through statements like “War is business”, freedom is Money” and “Ignorance is success” reflect the core values of the business world.
Business Language: command and control
The business language we use has been shaped by the industrial age. Innovations such as factories, assembly lines and mass production have had a great impact on our society. Along with industrial progress, a new language emerged to talk about these creations: Repetition, efficiency, productivity, management, hierarchy… A language of command and control. But also a language of dehumanisation where we humans become replaceable cog wheels of a machine.
We have left behind the industrial age. However, we still think, speak and converse in ways typical for that time. It is time we start a conversation about the outdated principles, methods and processes from the industrial age. The term “Human Resources” is a prime example for industrial age baggage. It is harmful because it shapes the way we think about human beings. As mere resources.
- Women belong to men.
- Children are the source of cheap labour.
- Humans can be property of other humans.
Not too long ago, like these statements were regarded as true. In some parts of the world they still go unquestioned. They reflect the interests of the ruling party. But that doesn’t mean that we should simply accept them. It does not mean that we should not question the status quo. We need to tell the stories of a future that is different, better and more human.
“What If…?” – Questioning the status quo
How do we start this future? We have a powerful tool: Language, and in particular questions. The most interesting one being “What if…?”. What if it’s illegal that humans can become property of someone else? What if children are not allowed to work until they’re grown up? “What if…?” questions challenge existing power structures, authorities and rules. Such questions open up a new space where a more human future becomes possible.
These “What if…?” questions were a driving force in hippie culture. In this culture, the anti-authoritarian ethos created a space of thought. A space where the information was moving around freely and accessible to everyone, hoping that a more peaceful, more egalitarian society could spring from it.
Hippie culture brought forward terms like “Flower Power”. Flower power assumed that the power of love would win out over violence and hate. While the effectiveness may be questioned, this time has also sparked a whole movement of non-violent communication, that is still relevant today. Maybe even more than ever.
The Silicon Valley Dream Machine: computers as intellectual amplifiers
Hippie culture also strongly influenced the famous research lab Xerox PARC in Silicon Valley in the 70s. You might have heard of some of their inventions, amongst other things the graphical user interface, the mouse and Ethernet. The research community that Xerox Parc was part of was called “The Dream Machine”. In their vision statement it said: “The destiny of computers is to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for all humans, pervasively networked worldwide.” Now ask yourself: When was the last time you came across a company statement that dared to add words like “dream”, “destiny”, “humanity”?
But why wasn’t Xerox the one that could profit from their innovations? Why was it Apple who took advantage of their inventions? The reason is rooted yet again in language. When the researchers exposed their inventions to management, the response was: How does this increase the sales of our copying machines? They really didn’t understand each other. There was this barrier. A language barrier.
Language differences: the performance engine and the innovation organism
This language barrier reflects the conflict between the performance engine and the innovation organism, both speaking very distinct languages.
The performance engine is the “business as usual”, where the managers want to make profit by making things faster, making predictions based on the past. On the other side we have the innovation organism that looks into the future trying to discover value where there hasn’t been any. The performance engine is characterised as bureaucratic, robotic, ossified, dull, decaying, controlling and patronising. This stands in stark contrast with the essence of the innovation engine: organic, exploring, believing and open. So, on one side we have this machine-like, industrial-age command and control language, on the other side the language of innovation. What kind of discussions do these differing vocabularies create and how compatible are they in a conversation between these two worlds?
The conversation between the performance engine and the innovation organism is a clash of two languages. One that sees innovation as a list of actions, while the other creates the space for innovation. But let’s say “management” is motivated by solving that “innovation thingy”. A pattern emerges – in the eyes of the performance engine, innovation is a to-do list, and therefore we command to innovate:
- We heard that transparency matters, so let’s make everything transparent.
- We heard that we need to have deep cooperation, so let’s cooperate more efficiently.
- We heard we need to be more responsive to an ever-changing market, so be more responsive!
Here we go, that innovation thing is done. This the language of innovation expressed through the language of performance. But innovation language should speak not speak in actions but to and about values, beliefs and conditions. This “actionism” confuses innovation as an action and innovation as a space. Innovation language coaxes, encourages, nurtures and fosters high potential. It is coined by the principles of transparency, cooperation and responsiveness, where questions are important. Where words matter. Where creating a space rather than a to-do list matters. This very space is also creating a space for a more human language.
Call for a new human language
A human language emphasises values, beliefs, conditions. A human language encourages, nurtures, fosters words which create that space of thought. The time of “breaking things and move fast” is over. In times of AI, automation, scaling globally, we’re in desperate need to redefine our humanity. Currently, we need to innovate ourselves, not produce yet another app. We should not want to become machines. The current beast we feed, also known as economics, is based on a whole bunch of rules that are mostly unquestioned.
And that’s the thing. We need to double down on becoming more human and transport this language in all these new and exciting possibilities. To foster a culture of innovation that pushes humanity forward. Our language reflects the road we are currently taking. Let’s have a look at some technology idioms that have become part of our common vocabulary: “My battery is empty.” or “Don’t push my buttons.” Shouldn’t we rather aim to become more human, and stop becoming machines by talking like machines? We must transport our human language into artificial intelligence, algorithms, automation, big data… we don’t need to serve the machine or become part of the machine. We need to be truly human. Be creative human beings. This said, we better start developing a new story about where we need to go and how innovation truly serves humanity and goes beyond the economical.
Language is a tool. Like any other tool, it can be used for good or bad. To exploit people or to serve them. If we as content designers, information architects, speakers or workshop facilitators use language to create that mental space to include others to think differently, we have understood language as a powerful tool, maybe the most powerful tool to be used for good. Language makes the difference. The difference between doing things right to doing the right things.