Everything was smooth until it wasn’t. My family and I were on a rafting trip last August. We expected a fun afternoon in the Colorado sun with the occasional rolling rapid. Like all the other times.
Not to be.
Two minutes in, I was jettisoned out of the raft and submerged in icy water. I slipped under the boat, pushed up at its black bottom with my eyes shut, and came up gasping for air.
I was disoriented. I started to panic. Four family members were in nearby waters scrambling, too.
We strained to hear the bellowing voice of our guide as he directed us to safety in the canyon: “Swim to the right, swim to the right!” Finally, we reached shore.
Rafting and Innovation: Starkly Similar Situations
Three minutes earlier we were together in the same raft, trying to solve a problem as a team. Somehow – right after pushing off – we’d floated onto a large, protruding, pointy rock just 50 meters from the shore.
We were stuck. And no one knew how to get us moving.
Without warning, we spilled out like a bunch of Cheerios bumped out of a bowl. Once we were back in the boat wide-eyed, wet and perplexed wondering, “What just happened?”
The process of innovation can feel exactly like this.
One minute your team is smiling in the raft, flowing down the smooth waters of Progress. It’s a great day!
The next minute the team is sitting atop a giant boulder – trying to solve a problem that suddenly emerged – and you can’t move. You can’t communicate. Nothing is clear.
Before you know it, everyone on the team is confused and gasping for air.
Unless there was a plan in place already. Unless there’s strategic direction from the “raft guide” – the team’s leadership.
Who’s In Your Engine Room?
After years of working with innovation labs to help them prepare polished, persuasive stories that “stick the landing” with audiences, I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to hear from leaders – the ones in the “engine” room – to find out more.
I asked executives at some of our nation’s largest ‘ships’ about their experiences and reflections:
“What is it – in your opinion – that keeps innovation from failing – from sinking? What are the pitfalls you’ve avoided with your teams?” I saw 5 themes emerge.
Together, the contributors to this article have amassed more than 150 years of innovation expertise. Thank you, Shane Wall, Chandrakant Patel, Heidi Burch, Will Allen, and Thierry Doussou for your generosity and wisdom.
Here’s what they had to say about their decades of work in the Engine Rooms of Innovation.
5 Tips to Help You Sail Successfully into 2023
#1: “Hire Left and Right.”
One mistake leaders can avoid starts at the beginning. “When it comes to hiring researchers for labs, left brain and right brain knowledge is key,” said Shane Wall, former CTO of HP Labs and former VP of Strategy and Product Management at Intel.
“Of course – we want high domain knowledge. But we also want to know, what they do outside of that? We’ve had opera singers, climbers and black belts. We found that researchers who use both sides of the brain think a bit more balanced – they don’t fall into the rut of all domain knowledge, all the time.”
We have seen Shane’s reflection to be true. In the Scientific Messaging Masterclasses we offer, one of the initial survey questions is, “what do you do in your spare time?” We’ve met black belts too, professional boat racers, anglers, photographers and glass blowers. What is often overlooked, is the stories these men and women have because of these passions. These stories – and the analogies therein – are often exactly what they need to help them explain their complex idea to a non-science audience.
#2: “Whiteboard for the Win.”
Every leader I spoke to emphasized the need for extreme clarity when describing a complex innovation. All agreed that anyone on a team who speaks about that innovation must know how to answer questions that come their way.
“Early in my career, I noticed that sometimes researchers who presented their innovation would hide behind buzzwords,” said Chandrakant Patel, Chief Engineer and Senior Fellow at HP. “When asked a question, they could not answer clearly or in a way anyone could understand.”
Patel saw this as a way to differentiate himself: “I said to myself early on, ‘I don’t want to be in that situation.’ For any project I take on, I must be able to explain it on a whiteboard – in simple terms. I stand by that principle to this day, after 30 years in the field. At the end of the day, communication is everything.”
In our work with scientists and researchers all across the spectrum, we see this too. There is a critical need for clear communication and “kitchen table language” when sharing an innovation with an audience who has never seen the idea before.
At On Point, we have a term for complex PowerPoint slides that are sometimes needed in a presentation. They are called “Whiteboard Slides,” and the concept is the same. We teach leaders how to share that slide and then go through it slower than the others – give it the time it needs before moving on. Presenters earn credibility when they present the idea on the slide as if it is a whiteboard. Click here to see how in our video tip: “What is a Whiteboard Slide?”
#3: “Know When to Say When.”
Heidi Burch, Polymer Engineer and Technical Fellow at DuPont, shared a valuable perspective: Is it ever okay to stop the project? How do you know when to stop the project? The mindset of innovators is often, “where there’s a will there’s a way!” So admittedly, this can be challenging for the innovator to see.
Heidi has seen firsthand that sometimes, the wisdom and courage is in knowing when to stop. Many years ago, she made a surprising discovery about an innovation she was working on: The materials the team had developed would result in something they hadn’t planned, something that might be dangerous. They needed to pull the plug, and fast. Heidi raised this quickly and, in the end, saved the team from an undesirable path.
“Too much attention on an idea can lead to tunnel vision. This can cause an idea to ‘sink,’ leading to inefficient use of time and energy and, ultimately, money. Leaders need to have an exit path or plan,” she said.
Knowing when to say “yes” is also key. “At the same time, leaders need to know when to say ‘yes’ to investing in innovations and innovators. If a strategic investment will advance your innovation team, then certain expenditures – conference travel and skills training for example – should be considered through the lens of personal development and enhancing the brand.”
#4: “Polished, Persuasive Communication.”
Will Allen is a Fellow and the Intellectual Property Lead on Iron Mountain’s Global Innovation Team. At one point in his career at Hewlett-Packard, Will worked closely on printer technology. This role informed his thinking on communication, and it has now informed some of mine.
“Inside a printer, there’s all this chemistry with the ink,” he explained. “The microfluidics, all the parts and pieces that are under your home printer’s hood, and more. What’s wonderful is when it’s done correctly, all that complexity is totally hidden from the user. You can hit the button for ‘2 copies’ and two seconds later, you pick up the paper. Liquid ink has magically dried onto the paper you hold. It’s a miracle.”
To me, this is exactly how good messaging looks: “all that complexity” (of crafting the message) is hidden from the user (or audience). It comes out perfectly, cleanly on stage, as if a miracle.
Will continued with an insight into persuasive speaking. “It is so important to communicate to others what you want, especially if you need things to be different. How do you explain the change you want to see and then get everyone on board with it? This is critical to the process of innovation. Because let’s face it, it’s really almost never the case that you’re in a position to just tell somebody what to do.”
Will is talking about the power of Aristotle’s rhetorical theory. Strong presentation skills are a must among innovation leaders and their teams. As the “engine rooms” work day in and day out to move an innovation from the idea stage to the larger market it will serve, those behind it will consistently need to communicate its value to the world.
#5: “Nail It, Scale It, Sail It”
Thierry Doussou created a framework with his colleagues at Microsoft to drive Software Supply Chain Security innovation. It’s called, “Nail It, Scale It, Sail It.” (Catchy, isn’t it?)
“First, we have to ‘nail’ the innovation and how it works with consumer feedback and internal dogfooding, then be able to ‘scale’ with more consumer feedback,” said Dossou. “When it is ready to be revealed to the world, we can ‘sail it’ – let it go, let it penetrate the market, let it change lives as it was intended.”
When it comes to rehearsing a message, this is exactly the path we ask speakers to begin. First, nail the message down by practicing it. Then, scale it by rehearsing in front of others. Finally, take it to the stage and sail it – let your message and your executive presence soar.
Have You Ever Felt “Swing?”
Earlier, we explored the misfortune of a rafting trip gone wrong. Let’s contrast that with an experience of people in a boat who actually excel in this area: teams who row crew. The following quote from a book is worth our pondering:
In his best-selling book, “The Boys in the Boat” Daniel James Brown recounts the incredible, heroic journey of nine men’s quest for Olympic Gold in Berlin – nine men from the state of Washington who rowed crew – and broke records – because of their camaraderie, and yes, skill.
Something happens when a crew team achieves “swing”, and he describes it this way:
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.”
It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold… Each minute action – each subtle turning of wrists – must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.
Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly, and gracefully, between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like. (Brown, page 161)
Does your team have “swing?” How close have you come to such efficiency, such fluidity, such poetry in your efforts toward innovation?
How does your team operate currently? Do the strategies listed here resonate with what you are already doing? Did some surprise you, or remind you of areas to explore in the coming quarter or year?
As we look ahead to the coming year, let’s find it. Let’s aspire to such poetry. Let’s find swing.
According to Forbes.com, Cindy Skalicky is “arguably America’s top expert in evaluating persuasion effectiveness.” She has helped company founders raise millions of dollars in venture capital. She has personally trained executives at Microsoft, DuPont, CHIEF, members of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and countless entrepreneurs pitching deals to the investor clubs all over the United States on how to win multimillion-dollar deals.Cindy helps speakers and teams Nail It. She coaches speakers and teams on A to Z presentation training, speech writing, delivery, and overall content development. Cindy also provides specialized workshops in Scientific Messaging and Executive Presence. Master the Message. Learn more at www.onpoint-communications.com or contact Cindy at: firstname.lastname@example.org.