A Common Innovation Language

One major challenge to any innovation effort, especially one where people from different parts of the organization are involved, is that of conveying ideas clearly and consistently. Although communication skill sets may vary widely across an organization the results can be reached more effectively with some straightforward  strategies. One of my favorite books in this area is The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. He describes how conveying complex thoughts and abstract ideas can be accomplished by just about anyone, artist or otherwise, through the systematic use of pictures. I’m a huge fan of white boards, the bigger the better. Multiple people can contribute – erase, change, rename, or start over completely with very little effort.  White boarding is of course nothing new, but the way in which Dan Roam approaches it is. He presents new ways of looking at problems and new ways of describing ideas. However, I also think that he’s tapped into a more efficient way of cross-functional teams to hit the ground running and quickly get their arms around a problem. It makes things much easier if everyone understands what the others are trying to represent and becomes a major advantage the more people you have collaborating. With just two people on a team the communication is easy to control, if something isn’t clear then it’s simple to ask a couple of questions and get some clarity. Becoming more and more common (I hope) is the situation where you have larger innovation teams working together – some of which may never have met each other. The problem of communicating ideas through pictures becomes ever more important then.

So here’s what I propose… The book focuses primarily on problem solving with others based on the concept of “visual thinking” or solving problems with pictures, so pick up four or five copies and hand them out to people you routinely ‘ideate‘ with. Then find a nice big wall and paint it with IdeaPaint or RustOleum’s Dry Erase paint. I’ve used RustOleum on a 13’x9′ textured wall, with a minimum of sanding and 2-3 coats [and] it worked pretty well. Next, have everyone read the book, pick a previous problem that some or all of you had worked on and go through it again after learning the concepts from Back of the Napkin. The first couple of passes through will be rough as you get your feed feet under you but it will start to make more sense as you go. You may even find a couple of different solutions that you hadn’t thought of along the way. Whatever. Once you and your team is comfortable, start teaching it to others. Slowly. Pick one or two people to try it out on. See what happens. Obviously you really can’t test it until your heads down trying to solve a problem or generating new ideas.

If you try this, tell me what happens. I’m interested to see how others deal with cross team communications through abstract mediums.

ideate – I despise this word. It sounds like something we just made up along the way to make it sound like we were working. But since it’s been around since 1610 I guess I just need to accept it. I promise to use it as infrequently as possible.