Innovation – What’s Communication Got To Do With It?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from the Netherlands

Here’s a bit of a rant….

Maybe it’s just the places that I’ve been hanging out in recently, but when a company strategy asks for innovation and the communication department is still mainly focused on improving alignment to strategy via mass media – I vomit.   Why? Because innovation isn’t something that people do sitting at their desks – it’s something that happens when people connect.

Many middle managers are still so preoccupied with trying to deliver to their main priorities alongside 200 emails a day that the cross-team collaboration piece that is so badly needed in order to generate innovation possibilities is fertile ground for the communicator.

Communication can support innovation by providing, for example:

  • events to stimulate new / hybrid solutions between departments,
  • knowledge sharing and social communication platforms to make  innovation fora and their content more globally accessible,
  • recognition for innovative developments that surface to encourage an increased innovation focus

…it’s a playground!

In other words, the narrow definition of communication as being simply a tool to broadcast messages of the Senior Leadership is still prevalent in many organizations, even when the requirement for people in the organization to communicate better / differently is being loudly broadcast by the communicators sending those messages.   Can you sense the ‘Grrrr’?   🙂

Are these kind of activities too close to the business for the high-level communicator?  Don’t communicators have the sponsorship?  How do business leaders imagine that ‘innovation’ will happen after the message is broadcast without this kind of intervention?

We’ve been here before on this topic – but the question I pose here now specifically on the topic of communication is: what will it take to move ‘organizational communication’ into more open, customized, fit for purpose spaces?

Rant over.  Looking forward to responses…

Mike Klein–Commscrum Prague

Here in Eastern Europe (where I’m on a brief visit), there’s a time-honored saying:  that one can easily love the taste of lamb but can’t handle the sight of blood.

It’s apt in this case.  A lot of folks in middle and senior places, having come up through the technical and financial ranks, now want all of the benefits that accrue from nurturing creative and flexible talent and the processes (like innovation and reciprocal communication) that such talent requires.

To a large extent, the discussion in the business world isn’t just about how to get the right talent and the benefits that come from having it–it’s about the undertone–how to do so with minimum shock and change to controlled, top-down, by-the-numbers cultures.

Like “bloodless” lamb at the supermarket, creative talent that can adapt to rigid cultures is available–at a price. Sometimes, that price is monetary, other times, that price is a willingness to accommodate slow change if one can play a major role in ultimately defining that change.

Ultimately–if the price of innovation is change, the challenge businesses will need to face is how to manage that change rather than now to avoid it.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London
Innovation is logically impossible in a vacuum (although Dyson was a great innovation as a vaccum).

The distinction to me is between the clicheed but nonetheless relevant “communication as a noun” and “communication as a verb” difference that lies in many ways at the heart of  the CommScrum movement.

With innovation, communication as a noun is necessary but not sufficient – it might support  “other people” doing innovation.  Don’t get me wrong, there is value in that,  particularly if you can make it work faster and better for your organisation.

But  as a verb it’s about “communicators/communication”  being participants in the innovation process.  (Note to self: don’t mention Design Thinking or one of our prolific commentators may feel compelled to remind us there is nothing new under the sun, change is impossible and a 1876 study said all this already).

You can innovate simply by bringing communication as a verb into the conversation, since communication is not traditionally a part of numerous business conversations.  And you will help the business perform better – particulary when it comes to brand, positioning and business strategy.  That leads to changes in organisational structure and processes et voila.

Dan Gray – strapping up his cauliflower ears in Riyadh

Not sure I have a great deal to add, except to pick up where KK leaves off on the point of systems and processes.

Pick up a copy of The Discipline of Market Leaders by Treacy and Wiersema. Look at how organisations that excel at innovation actually structure themselves. The point is that rigid hierarchy, top-down management and “tell and sell” approaches to communication, still so prevalent in many organisations, is fundamentally at odds with the loose-knit structures and person-to-person communication systems that are the hallmarks of innovative companies.

As a profession, we have to have the confidence to raise our game and advise on this “Organisational Design” piece – to deal with the underlying systems and processes of communication (the verb) as well as the craft of communication (the noun).

Actually, as said prolific commentator has already identified, what’s implicit in these systems and processes carries far more weight, and is therefore infinitely more valuable, than any explicit communication.


16 thoughts on “Innovation – What’s Communication Got To Do With It?

  1. Adam Hibbert says:

    [Ka tū te wanawana, etc]

    I think when us ‘technostructure’ types take instructions on the need for more innovation, we first of all need to clarify with the business leader that they understand *precisely* what they’re asking for. We tend to be too ready to take their words at face value. Which means that too many of them see us coming back with solutions that look (from their perspective) like a recipe for organisational chaos.

    Innovation is one of those words that leaders love, because so much of leadership is about “representing a route out of the bloody mess you’re currently in” to paraphrase a leadership guru. Trouble is, as they usually discover when it comes to taking hard decisions, what *actually* carries you out of that mess is proper execution of the innovations that have gone before.

    In the engagement space, we’re all aware that proper execution requires some of the good stuff Mike lists. So when a leader asks me to make plans to embed a more innovative culture, I’d straightaway use that conversation to ask them how much time they’re willing to invest in learning a new management style, empowering employees, equipping them with the lateral communication protocols they need, and transferring ownership of decision-making to them …

  2. Lindsay, fantastic to see you jumping on the ranting train, a place I’ve been many times. I’d love to write a huge screed about this, but I can’t because it has already been written, far better than I can write it, with the evidence you need to get the message through to the bosses.

    I can only urge you and others to read the work being done by Steve Denning on Radical Management. He has the evidence of the economic failure of the Fortune 500 and traditional management. He outlines the approach required for rational progress and future success. He has the international experience that helps sell these ideas anywhere. His blog is here

    I don’t expect all organisations to follow every approach he advocates. But the philosophy behind it is no longer even remotely arguable. But will it ever really happen? Organisations are still run by people, and people have their own styles, personalities, philosophies, confidence.

    But if you want a starting point for change, there aren’t too many better at the moment.

    Cheers, geoff

    • Dan Gray says:

      Looking forward to grabbing a copy of Radical Management when it comes out in Nov. Sounds just like my cup of tea!

      Curious as to whether you’d have any particular recommendations as regards Steve’s previous titles on storytelling.

      I’m always a bit wary when I see 3 or 4 books essentially covering the same topic. (De Bono in particular has a very annoying habit of just recycling the same thinking with each new book!)

      • Dan, Steve’s books have been building on one another to a certain extent. The Springboard is short and sweet, but I think go for another for depth. My personal bible is The Secret Language of Leadership. By that stage in my view, he had developed his approach to a very practical leadership and managerial point, and it is the one I give my CEO/Execs when I arrive at a new company to kick start my new career! Radical Management is a completely new book, which started out as an approach to creating high performance teams through storytelling and has evolved a long way beyond that as he has completed his research and written the book.
        Cheers, geoff

  3. kevinkeohane says:

    That Steve Denning thing looks very interesting Geoff.

  4. From a very, very hot and humid Montreal. Think I’m melting [consider that an excuse if what follows makes no sense].

    Building on Adam’s comments in particular…

    “Innovation culture” seems to me like the next generation “leadership culture”. Then everyone was a leader. [how that was possible I have no idea.] Now everything must be innovated? [makes about as much sense as everyone’s a leader] So let’s get back to basics.

    What needs to be innovated? Products? Services? Systems? Decision taking? Codes of Conduct? Pay policies? You get my point. And that brings me to the next question.

    Why are we innovating? To improve our employee experience? To improve our customer experience? To make it easier for the Board to brag on the golf course? To get a headline?

    Once we have deep clarity on these two fundamental questions, and only then can we start to think about how we will become an innovation culture and where and how communications can help.

    Admittedly, I agree with what has been said so far on this front [though the blood references on this hot day aren’t that appealing]. And I also think the pressure and opportunity of social media alone – never mind the many other points that have been brought up in this and earlier blog posts – means that we need to rethink both the what and how our function supports their clients with or without ‘innovation culture’.

  5. From the perspective of the communicator of today, Deborah’s comment nails this, I think. It’s vital that we clarify the objectives, rationale, understanding and appetite for change before suggesting *how* we can help – even if that means uncovering and, realistically, working with the less “progressive” undertone Mike identifies. Primarily, it’s about doing a lot of listening, then using our skills and experience to help.

    Reading Lindsay and Dan’s comments, the communicator they envisage seems more like a management consultant / BPR specialist: an agent of business change helping to shape entire working processes. I don’t entirely disagree with such a view (albeit with reservations), but from the leader’s perspective how clear and credible is that proposition today?

    Adam talks (I think quite rightly) about using our conversations with leaders to flag the many important aspects which should be considered, many of which might not instantly be associated with communication or communicators. However, is there a point at which we have to accept leaders’ right to set policy, and our role to help enact it? In other words, just how far beyond the current communication pocket do we want to push – and how far do our clients (in the broadest sense of the word) want us to go?

    • Dan Gray says:

      I’m probably lining myself up for a major fall in some circles, but that’s the gist of what I’m suggesting, Alan – yes.

      The term “strategic communication” gets bandied around with such feral abandon, yet I’m not convinced many people give a great deal of thought to what it actually means to be “strategic”.

      My personal vision is for our work to be seen (and to be valued) like that of one of the major management consultancies, the difference being that we come at the issue of value creation from different perspective/entry point that puts people before process – starting with the “soft diamond” of McKinsey’s 7S model, if you like, rather than the “hard triangle”.

      • Dan, and don’t disagree that we offer leaders more value than just advice on how to build and operate better megaphones. Upward and lateral communication, and the practical impacts those have on operations and process are certainly aspects of any business in which we can and should be adding significant value.

        However, I wonder just how broad our perspective / offering really is. You write about putting people in front of process, and whilst what I think we all regard as good communication is certainly people-centric, I suspect our cousins in HR, L&D and OD might reasonably claim to be in the same game (if the game is ‘people’).

        Today, Adam suggested that: “wouldn’t a senior Auditor be just as entitled to think they’re qualified to be making business decisions? And wouldn’t it be just as compromising to their primary task?”

        I don’t for a second doubt that communication can be strategic, but I can’t see us as providing any more than one of many perspectives (alongside those of other specialisms, management consultants and golfing buddies) – which it is the leaders’ role to consider as part of her/his decision-making process. Afterwards, when the call has been made, someone needs to enact the communication component … and isn’t that still us?

  6. Adam Hibbert says:

    I think it’s Quirke that points out the communicator often has to accept the role of organisational GP, thinking carefully about what symptoms the organisation presents with, and drawing on wide experience of such symptoms to suggest a (sometimes far from obvious) remedy. Y

    Yes, it can be well outside our own specialism, but really! At a senior level, if you can’t see things in the round, your specialism is stuffed. What makes this our business is that we tend to be in the room when the symptoms are described, more often than most other functional leaders. We have the privilege of seeing the traincrash coming from a long way off …

    One way to step outside the “innovation” schtick and get to the heart of the issue is to consider that humans innovate spontaneously: the question becomes, what is it about the current condition of the organisation that stifles that naturally occurring innovative impulse? In very general terms, the answer appears to be a failure to delegate, in which leader insecurity plays a very big part.

    The comms role in this is for me is primarily one of coaching senior leaders in the one basic objective of management: to transfer full ownership of the task to the person who must perform it. With innovation, some of that is about promoting a particular management style. Some of it is about ensuring the appropriate horizontal communication and decision-making infrastructure is built and respected. A lot of it is about getting your leaders to agree that this is a clear objective of the organisation.

  7. kevinkeohane says:

    Amen to that Adam.

    Re: this and Alan’s comment, it does sort of come back to noun vs verb. There is no “one size fits all” description of what an organisational communications professional should/could be – and with good reason. My personal bias, probably based on number of heartbeats clocked up, is more towards the general management and commercial implications/application of “communication” and “employee engagement” tools. I still roll up my sleeves and get involved happily in all the delivery stuff from segmentation to messaging to tone of voice to channel selection etc.

    Where “innovation” comes into it is exactly as Adam says – the innovation we get is spontaneous. We don’t sit down to “innovate” but the culture here doesn’t only encourage it, it demands it. “We never do the same thing once” might hold true. So that response really resonates with me personally.

  8. I agree with you Kevin and Adam. And I still have the questions Alan has, especially for people working inside other than consulting organizations. It’s a question that takes us beyond the innovation question for a second, so bear with me:
    I started thinking about this in earnest after I did a series of posts on “Learning from the Vatican” – – [don’t grown it’s not what you think]. What it would have been like to be at the table when someone started talking about the ‘greater good’ of the church versus the victims of the abuse and the abusers… What role do/should we have at a decision point like that? There’s a big range of possible actions from passively taking notes and drafting messages for the internal newsletter to whistle blower who must necessarily forfeit their job.

    Now back to innovation. Since, as Lindsay said at the start: “the narrow definition of communication as being simply a tool to broadcast messages of the Senior Leadership is still prevalent in many organizations” and we all agree that’s wrong… then I think the really interesting question is how hard do you push? and, when do you know it’s over and it’s time to do what you’ve been told? How quickly do you leave?

    By the way expanded on my initial thoughts and referenced this great discussion today at – .

  9. G’day yet again all, and an apology to Lindsay for taking the rant off track a little but I think I see a future theme developing for another CommScrum and it’s one that concerns me.

    The underlying foundation of comments from Alan, Adam and perhaps Deborah seem to me to be implying a glass ceiling for communicators. We will be advisers to the senior management team, maybe drivers, but not decision makers within the senior management team.

    The role Deborah doesn’t cover in the Vatican example is making the decision. Why shouldn’t a communicator be the person listening to the advice and making the decision? Is it really a doctrinal issue for the Pope or an issue that can fall fairly and squarely in our laps?

    Finance Directors make decisions about finance, but they also make decisions in other fields like operations, IT, resource needs etc. Do we feel our skills confine us to spreading the word?

    Are we not qualified to be CEO? Don’t we argue that we bring wonderful knowledge, experience and skills as members of Boards and the (I hate this term) C-Suite?

    My major role in one position I held was external and internal communications. This meant in that organisation that the innovation program was my responsibility because innovation may start with a person having an idea but can’t become action until it is communicated. I made the decisions on how innovation was encouraged, researched and developed and responsible directors in the relevant area made the decision about whether to implement them.

    I may be misreading all of this, but it’s a concern. Cheers, geoff

  10. Adam Hibbert says:

    I know we’re heading back to the IC lead @ CEO conversation, sorry, but wouldn’t a senior Auditor be just as entitled to think they’re qualified to be making business decisions? And wouldn’t it be just as compromising to their primary task? I have no objections to a comms director becoming a CEO, so long as they remember to hire a new comms director, and respect her advice. One head, two hats, is never a good look.

    On innovation, I’m loving this :
    [a veritable wow-fest of innovation, as reported by the session consultant … check that telling employee comment, #5 below the article!]

  11. Adam, thanks for posting the link to the AmDocs story. One thought: is there some merit in the argument that the ‘popularity contest’ process used might actually work against certain types of innovation? I’m mindful of some engeering breakthroughs which have come in the teeth of contemporary professional consensus (but perhaps, by its nature, there is no process for making that kind of thing happen anyway).

  12. Adam Hibbert says:

    I have no doubt that it works. If you take John Kearon’s research seriously, it works pretty much better than anything else, including expertise …

    My ironic tone was really concerned with the disjunct between this lovely experience (off in a corner) and the lived reality of the company (the employee rant). Innovation should be integral to work processes, but if you’re already sweating 98% of the available energy out of your people on the day job, you may find they’re less keen to contribute to ‘your’ next big, profitable idea. So best to take them on a jolly to a Mediterranean sunspot, where they can forget what work is actually like and recover their inner human. Or ….

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