Episode 12: Communication, The Last Mile of Innovation
You spend countless hours shaping your idea, interviewing customers, securing funding and resources, making financial models and perfecting your product. But understandably by the time it comes to communicate what you’ve built to the rest of your organization and stakeholders, you may have run out of steam. So you document the product in a Powerpoint deck and send off an email. And then…crickets.
On this episode, Design Director, Brian Hauch, shares some thoughts around how communication is really the last mile of innovation and could use some intention as you release your product inside of your organization.
Brian is interviewed by Andrew Powell, OST’s Application Development Practice Manager – a man of many talents and interests that we’ll dig into at some point.
Lizzie Williams: Hey everybody. On this episode of “Ten Thousand Feet” we talk with design director Brian Hauch. Brian works with OST clients to marry the investigative nature of design with the practical demands of business. We talk through something that’s been on Brian’s brain lately, how communication is really the last mile of innovation. Brian is interviewed by author, magician, comedian and the manager of OST’s application development practice, Andrew Powell. Enjoy.
Brian: So we are going to talk about communication and the role of communication in change and innovation and digital transformation, all those things that companies will have to go through to grow and get better.
Andrew: Words mean things.
Brian: They do.
Andrew: Yeah, my Grandpa always said that to me. You say words mean things.
Brian: Sometimes they mean many things.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about communication, Brian. You brought with us this– this thing you were talking to Laura about. Communication is the last mile of innovation. Is that an original phrase of yours or did you steal that from somewhere?
Brian: I believe it’s original but I’m not really sure the origin. It kind of came to me the other day as I was reflecting on projects where we’ve worked with clients, helping them through various stages of digital transformation.
Brian: And I think a lot of times people focus on the technology or the internal processes or the strategy, which are all critical, right?
Brian: If you don’t have that.
Andrew: Why bother?
Brian: Yeah. Exactly, and then you get to the end of this process where you’re being reflective and planning out the vision of the future and you put all your knowledge into a PowerPoint deck and then you set the PowerPoint deck–out to people all done. I’ve communicated.
Andrew: Right, right.
Brian: But it’s much more than that, right?
Brian: So I think a lot of times all that planning gets misrepresented or doesn’t really come to fruition because communication wasn’t included in part of the change process.
Andrew: Yeah. This is probably true for innovation but, heck Brian, this is true everywhere, right?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. Every project, every team meeting, you know, communication is critical.
Andrew: Communication is critical. Sure. Do you think though we have a tendency to not take it as seriously as we take some of the other aspects of what we’re doing?
Brian: Yeah, I do. I think that what we want to communicate is always very clear in our own heads, and for communication to be effective is you have to be empathetic towards other people and understand how they learn, and then reframe what you want to communicate through their lines.
Andrew: Jeez Brian, that seems really hard. Isn’t it a lot easier to just make a PowerPoint?
Brian: It is. It is. That’s why people do it.
Andrew: Yeah. So how do I change my mindset?
Brian: So that’s a good question. I think the first step is awareness.
Brian: And being aware that there is this process and you can be strategic with it. You know, also the belief I think that communication is a one-way process. I think communication is really two ways.
Brian: It’s a dialogue, right? It’s not just me telling you what to do.
Andrew: Yeah, sometimes especially in the innovation space that we think of it very much as one way.
Andrew: Right? I’m going to tell you all about the wonderful things I’ve done. I’m going to tell you why New Coke is the best. I’m going to tell you why you should drive a Tesla.
Brian: Yeah. And there’s a place for that, right? There’s a place to cast the vision and there’s a place to own it and to inspire people, right? But then–
Brian: If you want people to buy in, you have to give them room to lean into that idea and you want to bring them through that process of change because if you’re part of the innovation team, you’ve already gone through this process, maybe it’s six months or twelve months or you’ve lived this every day.
Brian: And then you have the big unveiling where you’re like, “this is what we’ve been working on for the past twelve months” and everyone is still twelve months behind where you’re at.
Andrew: Yeah, but I just spent those last twelve months exhausting myself and now I’m done. I finally unveiled it. You mean, I’m not really done.
Brian: Right. You just started.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s got to be daunting for some people.
Brian: It is. It’s not easy. I mean, I think there is innovation fatigue.
Brian: That sets in is after if you’ve been part of that core team that’s in charge of digital transformation or whatever challenges you’re facing, there’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of emotional effort that goes into it, and then you get to the end. You kind of want to be done with it, but if you want it to scale throughout the organization, you have to learn how to communicate it.
Andrew: So what I hear you’re saying is, when I get to the end, that’s false. I’m not actually at the end. What I think is the end, isn’t really the end.
Andrew: Launching, that’s not the end. That’s the start of the end?
Brian: Yeah. It’s the start of the end. It’s a good way to put it. A lot of it’s kind of on-boarding, right? It’s another way a business often look at this— this is on-boarding, right? You need to on-board people into your idea.
Brian: One of the things I do is I— there’s different ways people learn. People learn intellectually, like through knowledge. They also learn experientially through experiencing something, right? Through all their senses. They also learn socially. So that might be a workshop, right? Where you get people in a room and you allow them to go through the process of internalizing that together, or you might give them a more of an immersive experience where they can maybe meet some of your new customers that you’re now dealing with, now that you’re into digital transformation and you want to provide relevance to your customers where maybe you’re getting their data and you’re addressing a whole new set of customer needs as opposed to “Buy my product.”. Now, you’re like let me give you a service and you get a lot more deep into the customer’s lives. So what if you make that experience real for people that it’s not just about–
Brian: –buying this product.
Andrew: So is it maybe all of those? It’s maybe I’ve got to come to all of my customers where they are and that might be three or four different communication approaches.
Brian: Yeah. It might be. Those can be all like immersive processes that people go through where they kind of walk in the shoes of your customer and learn what it really means. So there is a role for PowerPoints, because that’s a good way to intellectually communicate your knowledge, right? It’s like a source of truth, but then you want to also allow your team to experience what that means both internally and then with more robust moments.
Andrew: Can I take a step to the left or right?
Andrew: To talk to you a little bit about communication, in general?
Andrew: Do you think communication the way humans interact with each other has changed in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years?
Brian: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s hard to ignore the impact of text messages or emojis or memes in corporate communication, right? I think that they, it’s part of life, right? It’s part– it’s a language that people use now. I, from my perspective, I think that they’re not as robust as having a vocabulary in a language because you have to, you have this pre-existing set of emojis or–
Andrew: Wait, Brian are you making the radical notion that words are more powerful than poop emojis?
Brian: Yeah, exactly. Well, it depends on your topic. Sometimes that might be very powerful. But, yeah, I mean, I think just the ability to– and change is really complicated, right? And just the ability to communicate and have that nuance of language and things is really important and I think a lot of our digital tools can’t strip that out.
Andrew: Yeah. So is that a problem to be solved or is that the new normal?
Brian: Both, I think. I think it is a problem that we should be aware of, but I don’t think it’s right to ignore it. I mean, you have to kind of embrace that too and figure out ways to socialize your– change vision through those means too. That’s available and people use it. So you should meet people where they’re out there but not expect that to do all the work.
Andrew: Right. Right. So there’s a whole lot to it. I’ve got to think through how I communicate to various audiences using various means.
Andrew: Man, sounds like a lot of work.
Brian: Well that’s, a lot of it can be done fairly quickly if you sit down and you designate a couple of days to think through who you’re trying to communicate, like what team you’re trying to communicate to and figure out a roadmap on doing it. Because you already have all the information, right, from your process and your work and you just have to like shape it in a way that’s meaningful to people.
Brian: One way I like to think about it is, sometimes that there’s people out there who want information, right? They want to see the data that you use. There’s another type of people out there who wants to know what’s the process, what you want me to do. Other people out there want to feel like part of a team. So there’s like a social experience that they learn through.
Andrew: Probably you need a communication strategy for each of those personas, each of those audiences.
Brian: You do. Yes, and you could develop a communication plan using those, definitely.
Andrew: So what I hear you saying is, maybe the real challenge here is that we don’t think of it as a problem to solve or think of it as something we should strategize around. We think the building of the innovation is the work, and when we’re done, we’re done. And what you’re saying is, there’s actually a strategy that sets your innovation up for success, a communication strategy.
Brian: Yeah. I think if you don’t have a communication strategy, your innovation won’t scale. It won’t scale beyond the team that created it, and so you have to really think about the other teams and what their priorities are and how they’re like being communicated to.
Andrew: So twenty years ago, in the dawn of the Internet we used to say things like “If you build it, they will come.” and the innovation was the important thing. That’s just funk, huh?
Brian: Well, you have to start there, right? Unless, you can’t have everything just kind of merge in the moment. There is a role for people to set a vision and to do the discipline and have the research about, like we need to go West, right, or we need to go East and but in order to change a large company to become more digital, you need to have more people involved than just the innovation team, right? So you need to have the marketing team. You need to have the development team. You need to have the sales team all on-board and understand what this means for them.
Andrew: I’m with you. So this is something influential that you bring to your strategy work with OST clients, yeah?
Brian: It is. So a lot of times I’m brought in on projects where they’re sort of exiting the innovation stage and they want to scale this and get other people on-board, you know, and understand what groups within a company are for this change, what might be more against this change because there’s always different perspectives on it, and change is hard. No one, no one wants to change.
Andrew: For sure.
Brian: And everyone likes it as it is to some degree. So you want to figure out ways to connect with people and bring them along, but like a very pragmatic thing you can do is tell stories. And everyone relates to a story. That’s really how people view the world.
Brian: And if you want to share innovation as you should have a set of stories that you tell, right? And think about maybe they’re customers’ stories, ways to illustrate how this is different, maybe they’re internal stories, maybe they’re stories from another industry but have like a set of stories that you continuously share.
Andrew: How do I create those stories? I mean, I think I totally understand the value of storytelling, but when you’re thinking about being in the innovation mindset and trying to build something new, how do you get yourself out of that and think about the stories that tell why the innovation matters?
Brian: Yeah. You know, it’s really hard to step back if you’ve been so deep into the innovation process and now you have to step back and sort of approach it with fresh eyes. That’s a challenging thing to do. So it’s, sometimes it’s good to bring in new people that just bring in a fresh perspective. So that’s one way to do it. Another way is to re-frame it because we often frame innovation stories through the innovation lens, like whatever product or service that we’re making we make. We tend to when we tell innovation stories, we tend to make that the hero.
Brian: Our idea’s the hero, right? And it’s not, the hero is the person listening.
Brian: Right? And so how can your idea help the person who’s listening overcome a challenge in their life.
Andrew: Right. That’s sort of an entirely different way of thinking about what it is you’re trying to do in your storytelling.
Brian: Yeah. You can’t end on the idea and you end on the benefit of every idea, but really ninety percent of your story is about who is your audience and what are their challenges?
Andrew: So you’re going to tell me stories in which I feel like I’m the hero and your innovation makes it easier for me to be the hero.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s powerful.
Brian: So that’s like a structure that you can use to frame up stories but, you know, there’s also stories that can be used as examples, benchmarks from other industries, right? Similar–
Brian: —industries and not necessarily competitive industries, but maybe another industry, another service industry or something like that, so.
Andrew: Is this the same thing as marketing or do you think of this sort of storytelling as different?
Brian: Storytelling is different than marketing. There’s a lot of overlap, but the core reason that marketing exists is you want to communicate a message to a large group of people in general, and I think it’s kind of the opposite with strategic communication as you have a very specific person or team that you want to communicate with.
Brian: And so you need to be more specific than marketing can.
Andrew: Can make it.
Andrew: All right. So, Brian, not to brag but I’m real good with PowerPoint.
Andrew: Couldn’t I just pack all that story into my PowerPoint and call it a day?
Brian: You can. A lot of people do that. That’s a– and I even do that, right? I think just the process of documenting what you know is important and to create sort of a single source of truth that you can go back to is important. So I don’t have anything wrong with like having an overly dense PowerPoint deck. The challenge is when I give my overly dense PowerPoint deck to someone else and say everything’s in here.
Andrew: Are they going to draw meaning from that?
Brian: Are they going to draw meaning from that. Right.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good point. So how does this sort of thinking in your mind influence how you do what you do? So you do consulting work for our clients. Do you apply the same lens to us, to your own life?
Brian: Yeah, I try to. It’s hard to be self-reflective sometimes, you know, and so you get in the middle of a project, right, and this is my passion project and I’m doing this, and everyone should be as passionate about this as me.
Brian: Which is great. Passion communicates and that’s important, but on the other hand that might not always resonate with people, like you may have to rethink it from the lens of what they find important, what is their passion. So.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Huh. So how about beyond work? Do you innovate? Do you innovate outside of work? Do you work on your communication skills outside of work, see it as a life goal of yours, a passion project of yours?
Brian: My background really is in marketing and communication, so I’ve been doing it for over twenty years, and so that’s where a lot of that I’ve learned over the years working with clients on different types of communication, a lot of it has been marketing. Some of it has been around innovation communication and so as you are presented with a whole range of challenges that companies face, you have to figure out different ways to connect the dots to help them share their idea because they’ve spent so much time and effort to make this idea amazing and to change the direction of the company. You want to be able to share that and get other people on-board, right? If you can’t do that, it’s going to be really hard to execute it.
Andrew: And then you’re going to ask yourself, “Why’d we innovate in the first place?”.
Andrew: Yeah. I can’t help but wonder as I listen to you talk, Brian, that the challenge might be you have this innovative team working aggressively to accomplish some innovation, build a product, change the world. All those things, and they get done and in their heads their job is done. They built the thing. Whose job is it to get the thing out there? Where does that responsibility lie?
Brian: That’s a really interesting question, and I think there is– so the teams, a team is a silo in and out itself, right? The team has optimized processes to make that team very effective at what they do, and I almost feel that the person in charge of the communication has to have one foot in the team that has developed the idea and one foot in the team that they want to communicate to. It’s almost like an in-between step, a bridge between teams. I’m not saying that teams are opposed to each other or they’re arguing against each other but just the idea you might need a translator between teams.
Andrew: Sure. You might need a bridge even if both sides of the wall are on the same team.
Brian: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: They’ll need someone who can bridge that gap. So is that someone who you think has ridden with the innovation team through the entirety of the innovation’s development?
Brian: It could be— or it could be someone who’s brought in towards the end. It depends on the complexity of it and where all the different teams are and how much they know about it, and so I think it could be— generally, it’s someone from the outside coming in for this specific project to make sure that it’s being communicated to other teams.
Andrew: Well, when you’re innovating through software development, we talk a lot about the idea that you’ll reach the point at which your minimally viable product say is done and the people who are primarily responsible for development are ready to walk away, but that product in order to be healthy to survive is going to need ongoing care maintenance. I wonder if that sort of support structure, that sort of continuous improvement structure, if there isn’t a role for communication in that group, that we’re also going to constantly need to talk about what we’re doing, why it matters, how this makes it better. If, say, you’re building a software product and a new version comes out every month or two, someone’s job has to be to explain to the customer why this new version makes sense, right?
Brian: Yeah, and as you were talking, I was also thinking about the role of communicating back into the innovation team. It’s not like it’s hierarchical where the community where, I’m sorry, where the innovation team is at the top of the pyramid and it has to cascade down through the organization, right? It’s the idea that the rest of the organization can also inform what the innovation team is doing and it’s a two way communication, and so hopefully if you, as you get people engaged, they’re going to have ideas. And you don’t want–
Andrew: Oh, yeah.
Brian: — those ideas to be dismissed and so they need to be filtered like back into the innovation team internally.
Brian: To stay healthy, to make sure that it can be supported.
Andrew: Yeah, communication is really important then, which seems like such a silly thing to say but in the trenches when you’re working on changing the world, communication seems sometimes like an afterthought.
Brian: Yeah. I mean, it’s like that metaphor of the fish in the water, right? And then, someone asked the fish, “What do you think of the water?” and the fish says, “What water?” right?
Brian: You don’t realize all the ways you’re communicating unless you make it a point.
Brian: To be aware of it.
Andrew: But you take that water away and the fish knows it’s gone.
Brian: Yes, yes, it does.
Andrew: Yeah. I can’t help but wonder because the nature of your average innovation team and the sort of work we do is largely composed of people who are maybe introverted in their very nature.
Andrew: Maybe that is a skill set that isn’t the best communication skill set.
Brian: Yeah. You know, it’s not about making everyone the best communicator in the world. I believe that as long as people can become like one degree better, that has a big impact on their communication ability.
Andrew: Sure. Sure, and probably we all can get better.
Brian: Yeah, and I mean, I think we’re all people and we’re all human beings.
Andrew: I think we’re all people.
Brian: I think we’re all people last time I checked, but, you know, communication happens within relationships and so people know the strengths and weaknesses of other people and as long as, I believe, people are making an effort to get better, that goes a long way. Even if you’re not doing everything technically right by the book.
Andrew: Well, I think that’s the interesting thing I’m hearing and what you’re saying though, as long as people understand this is an area in which you can work to get better. I think in the innovation mindset, one of the challenges is awareness.
Andrew: We don’t think when we’re done that we aren’t really done, and changing that mindset makes you think, “oh, well, I should communicate something.”, and that makes you think, “Oh, I should get better at communicating this sort of thing.”, and that sort of cascade, creates change.
Brian: Yeah, just that by itself would have dramatic impact. That awareness that this is its own project, it has its own importance and it can be done well.
Andrew: Gosh, I wish there was a podcast where we could talk about this for a few, oh, oh, wait, wait. There is one. Maybe this conversation will help.
Brian: Yes. I hope so.
Andrew: If not, you could put together a PowerPoint for us.
Brian: I would, a forty-page PowerPoint, yes. So as a rule of thumb, as you’re planning your communication, it’s good to know your audience, right? Know the different people you’re communicating to and what their priorities are, if they like information, if they like processes.
Andrew: And it might have more than one audience and therefore more than one approach in communicating.
Brian: You will always have more than one audience. Yes.
Andrew: All right.
Brian: And the second thing is to be aware of how people learn. Some people want information. Other people want an experience. Other people need to have like all their senses involved where they can see things firsthand, right?
Andrew: Sure. Sure. V.R.
Brian: V.R. Yes, and the next one is to know your stories, right, and to think through the stories that you’re going to use to communicate the key points of how you want people to act different.
Andrew: Sure. Then, just translate those stories into a couple of emojis and you’ll be good to go.
Andrew: All right. All right. Makes sense to me, Brian. I’m so thankful that you came and talked to me about this because I think we as a consulting organization can apply some of these same skills to the work we do and the way we interact with each other. We sometimes don’t think about communication beyond innovation.
Brian: Yeah. Well, I thank you for asking me to be here and talk about it. I love the idea of communication and I like this opportunity to share it.
Andrew: So Brian, you‘ve been on the podcast before. You told us about your favorite game. Do you have a new favorite game? Do you remember what you said before?
Brian: So before my favorite game I believe I said was “Lost Cities.”
Andrew: Oh, sure. Okay.
Brian: It’s a kind of game for two people.
Brian: It’s a fantastically simple card game. Since then, I played “Ticket to Ride.”
Brian: I like that game quite a bit. It’s a– you go on a train journey across the United States.
Andrew: Why do I hate that game so much? I do. I don’t know why.
Brian: Do you?
Andrew: Everyone loves it.
Brian: You don’t like that game?
Andrew: I don’t know why I hate it so much. I must have had a bad first experience and I can’t shake it but I know the game well. Everybody loves that game. It’s a great game. You should play it.
Brian: Did you know the most recent version of that game has the state of Michigan?
Brian: As a board.
Andrew: Yeah. Very exciting. It’s very cool if you like that game.
Brian: Yes, it is. I like.
Andrew: There are so many expansion packs and adjustments and special Ticket to Ride version stands. Clearly, they’ve got, they’re doing something right.
Andrew: Great. Great. Thank you so much Brian. Thank you.
Brian: Thank you.
Lizzie Williams: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information go to ostusa.com/podcast.