Language Games in Technological Innovation

15 February 2020 by Robert Louw

Few people know buzzwords are pawns on the board in the games of sales and influence.

There is a divide in how people talk. The devide is between those who build technological solutions and those who sell these solutions or visions of such solutions.

When people talk about “innovation” and “disruption” it is a game to instil external motivation. Some people speak about innovation to fuel ambitions towards building empires or creating unicorns. Other people talk about radical change to chase people towards an unstated agenda: buy my product, pay for my services or join my following. Few people know buzzwords are pawns on the board in the games of sales and influence.

I didn't know. For the first few years of working with innnovative projects, I didn't even see the etymological mess in my field. Now I understand this mess is not going to be resolved by redefining innovation for a hundredth time.

The solution lies in understanding what is the purpose underpinning the words. By clarifying this purpose, we can select our words better and start to use other innovators' best mental models in our work.


The protracted language games of real innovators

There are three important language games for innovators. If we neglect to engage people in all of three, our results will suffer. The reason is that these conversations are interdependent and build on one another.

Very few individuals like to play all three language games. Our personalities affect which games we prefer to play. So remember we need to play as a team to cover all of our bases.


1. The problem discovery game

The first language game is built up around problem discovery. Empathy compels the innovator to start a dialogue and understand what people really need.

Customers are the best at the problem discovery game. They can complain at length, which may be why amateurs don’t engage them.

Amateurs at this game rush through it.

Advanced players elegantly combine verbal and nonverbal cues from customers to make intuitive conclusions about what they would buy. Ask these players about it and they talk broadly. Tell them most innovations are inspired by customer needs and they’ll say “oh yes, of course.”

The academics have noticed how advance players do it and jumped into the game with their own arsenal of powerful terms. Steve Blank changed the game for academics when he first articulated his Four Steps to the Epiphany. Now the academics are playing hard. They talk about pains and gains and the real job to be done for the user. They break customers into personas, then split influencers, buyers and users. The academics go further and tell their students to "get out of the building!" to get face-to-face, high fidelity data from the market.

Regardless of what type of player you are, we have to cultivate some character strengths to be good at this game. It is all about engaging customers with openness, flexibility and empathy, while testing them to see what can be delightful surprises.


2. The technical update game

Innovators also dig into technical discourse. Some innovators are compelled by perfectionism to talk about incremental improvements. Other innovators are driven by curiosity to explore the outer limits of what can be done.

Soon after starting this game, we uncover endless details to discuss. Language turns to a percussion of facts, experimental results, constraints and technical terms. If ever something is labelled the “best practice”, it will soon be referenced to indicate what needs fixing. The top players of the technical update game are often academically trained. Their vocabulary includes learning curves, adoption curves and other terms for types of trend analysis.

As we talk about technical updates, we arrive at tests of character. We need to be both disciplined in following scientific processes and brave to discover new ways to become the best at what we do.


3. The entrepreneurial game

Entrepreneurial talk is the natural companion of problem discovery and technical updates. That is because entrepreneurs chart bold steps forward. A blend of external motivation and internal psychological factors push people to have entrepreneurial conversations.

When external motivation is high, debates cover breaking even, the size of the market and the competition. People who are more experienced in this game further take apart cost structures, profit models, supply chains and other business model components.

However, when external motivation is subdued, the topics change to questions about significance, recognition and legacy. Global issues are highlighted. Moral questions are raised.

Ultimately, entrepreneurial talk is aimed at some kind of success. We need to do introspection to make sure it is the right kind.