When we’re trying to innovate within a large corporation, it can often feel like we’re in a foreign country where no-one speaks our language.

No matter how hard we try to communicate, our message gets lost in translation.

Frustrating? For sure. But as Tendayi Viki explained at Innov8rs Madrid, the problem lies with…well, us. And this became pointedly clear when he arrived in Madrid and hopped in a cab.

“I was talking to the cab driver in English, asking him whether he takes credit cards. He asked me: why are you speaking to me in English? Do you speak Spanish? And I said, no I don’t. And he says: well, don’t you think it’s stupid if I went to England and started speaking Spanish to English people? Why do you guys always assume that the world speaks English? And I didn’t know what to say.”

Innovators and intrapreneurs often do the same thing – we expect everyone else, from leaders on down, to speak our language. And when they don’t, we get frustrated because from our view, they just don’t get it.

But we’re being like Tendayi in the cab, speaking English to a Spanish cab driver in his own country and expecting him to understand us. “Why am I assuming that what I’m saying is more valuable than the people I’m actually speaking to? Ultimately, it’s alignment that matters.”

The Language of Innovation

As innovators, we’re at home with Lean, agile, and other methodologies. We use the build-measure-learn loop. We live comfortably in a space where we don’t know if what we’re doing is going to succeed, and are happy to work incrementally and iteratively, testing our assumptions as we go, and dropping the things that aren’t working in favor of doubling-down on the things that are.

All of this, says Tendayi, is a cultural language that is easy for some folks to pick up, but not so easy for others.

“You can get product teams in a room and have them do Business Model Canvas, all the cool stuff, and they will learn this language easily. Then, they’ll try and practice it in their own organizations – and that’s when they find out the organizations don’t understand that language. There is a lack of alignment. Then the challenges start.”

Alignment Challenge #1: A Lack of Fluency

There is a huge difference between being able to speak another language – to be able to ask the cab driver questions in Spanish, for instance – and being fluent in that language. Fluency happens when you ‘get’ the underlying principles of a language: you understand the jokes; know how to inflect the swear words; and, most importantly, become able to catch and self-correct your mistakes.

Similarly, innovation theater happens when innovators can speak and understand the language of innovation, but lack the fluency. Because they miss the underlying principles, they use the tools and concepts in a way that doesn’t reflect the actual philosophy of innovation, and end up having very little impact – or derailing innovation efforts entirely.

“One thing I’ve learned as I move through various companies is that the people who destroy the innovation capabilities of their organizations are people who do innovation in those organizations,” says Tendayi. “They are talking about Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and visionaries and the future and Facebook and all these things, but they don’t really understand the philosophy that underlies any of those things. And they make a mess: convince their companies to spend loads of money on innovation labs, create stuff that nobody ever bought.

So the moment they leave and somebody else comes and says hey, let’s do something innovative, the leaders are jaded. They don’t want to hear from us anymore. They’re tired of cool people just talking stuff that makes no sense.”

Strategic alignment can’t happen if the people on your innovation team aren’t fluent. It’s imperative, first and foremost, to make sure that when we’re doing this work, everyone understands what we’re doing and why. Only then can we start teaching the language to the rest of the organization.

Alignment Challenge #2: Culture Shock

Maybe we are fluent in the language of innovation, but we’re operating within a poor innovation culture. After all, we talk about culture a lot. But do we actually understand what we’re talking about here?

“When people talk about culture, what they’re really thinking about is some sort of mythical vibe, like innovation culture is like some creature that comes from the mountain and blesses the people and then they become really cool and they have cool shoes and whiteboards and post it notes,” says Tendayi. “But actually the culture of an organization is what that organization rewards, invests in, raises up, praises, punishes.” And that culture is reflected in the rituals and artifacts found within it.

As innovators, have our rituals and artifacts: we know when and how to use certain tools; how to do experiences; how to do business model design; how to brainstorm. But the moment we step outside of our teams, we’re met with a completely different culture with its own rituals and artifacts: ROI; ARR; annual budgeting cycles; five year plans.

“If you do annual budgeting, your philosophy is that nothing will change in a year. If you do your five year projections, your philosophy is that the world’s going be the same five years from now,” says Tendayi. “So when you bring an innovative idea to your leader, they don’t have any artifacts or tools to analyze whether or not this idea will succeed. So they’ll put ROI and ARR on top of it; meanwhile, you’re talking customer value. But what does that mean?”

And trying to force our culture onto this other culture, or expecting them to immediately embrace our rituals and artifacts over their own? Not going to work. To align at the management level, we need to show leaders how they can use some of our tools to analyze the feasibility of our projects.

“If we’re going to use build, measure, learn loops for managing innovation, we can to use build, measure, learn loops for making investment decisions: invest a little bit, track progress, review whether or not what we’re working on is actually on track, and then double down on those things that work and diverge from those things that are not working,” says Tendayi.

“Sharing this cultural artifact helps management make investment decisions in a meaningful way around innovation.”

Alignment Challenge #3: The myth of the innovation lab

Maybe your company has set up an innovation lab. This is great – it’s like finding an expat community in your new country. Now you’ll be surrounded by people who understand you, successful ideas will come flying out on a regular basis, and since your company is obviously serious about innovation those ideas will make it to market and life will be perfect. Right?

Not necessarily. According to Tendayi, companies often set up a lab as a form of executive-level innovation theater. They want to look like they’re doing innovation, but they’re actually hoping you don’t bring anything back to distract them from running the core business.

So what happens when you do find something viable? Now, you’ve become a problem for the company. Tendayi calls this ‘the problem of success.’

“The reason we work on this stuff is we want to move the product into the core business – but the stuff we’re working on is not strategically important to anybody. There is huge misalignment at a strategy level.”

Rather than seeking a physical space, like a lab, what we as innovators must push for is strategic space.

“You need space in your organizational strategy around innovation. You need management space – tools for managing innovation that are different from the core. You need time to innovate. You need protected budget space to innovate, so that your budget is not encroached by cuts from the main organization. Only when you have those spaces will your physical space then become successful.”

How to Align: Develop an Innovation Thesis

Whether your challenge is around language, culture or space, one of the best ways to overcome it is to work with your leadership to create what Tendayi calls an innovation thesis: a point of view about the future, and how the company is going to respond.

Then you start making decisions about where, when, and how to play, the resources and capabilities that you need, and then all of that flows into the strategic allocation to innovation. It’s not a granular description of exactly what products you should be working on – it’s a broad guidance, using the build, measure, learn loop.

“Imagine an organization in which down on the ground, the individuals that are working on products are using the build, measure, learn loop to create really cool stuff. They’re doing experimentation. They’re focused on solving business model questions, and they’re really working hard to make sure that they’re making stuff that will become successful.

At the middle level, at the innovation management level, leaders are tracking the progress of these projects by making incremental investments and asking the right questions at the right time. So you’ve got your daily stand up, your weekly sprint. You might have your weekly meeting with your board to make sure that you’re tracking. And then at the leadership level, you have your strategy board that is meeting every quarter to review the portfolio of innovation projects to see how well that portfolio is delivering against strategy, seeing whether or not we need to add a change to strategy from what we’re learning, or double down on that strategic approach. That is a joined up way of thinking about how we work.”

“Innovation is politics. Embrace it.”

Whether we like it or not, office politics exist. If we want to align with management and get innovation moving, we have to accept those politics and work with them.

“Even if you’re off in a lab, you’re still in the business of stakeholder management. You’re still in the business of bringing together HR, technology, the finance department, the CFO, the CMO.

All these people have a stake in what you’re doing, and your job is to bring them along with you, because if you don’t, they have a stake in killing whatever you’re working on.”

And that means also accepting that as innovators, our main job is really strategy.

“A lot of people who work on innovation think that this is not their job: It’s not my job to do strategy, right?” says Tendayi. “If it’s not your job to think about this, or work with your leaders to think about this, then whose job is it?

Because if we don’t do it, then the people who will do it are people who don’t get it. And if the people who don’t get it do it, then it’s much less likely to be successful.”