My favorite subject in grade school was science. I was fascinated by the intricacy of natural systems, especially how a single event—that infamous butterfly, for example—could have unforeseen consequences. Similarly, business leaders can consider their companies to be natural systems too. In science, no chemist would dream of starting work without a periodic table, and biologists are devoted to their species classification. Likewise, no business leader should ask employees to dive into innovation, process improvement, or any kind of change management effort without first providing a framework for understanding. Finding the right tools for explaining is crucial.
Read: Dealing with Uncertainty in Innovation
Your grade school science lessons likely introduced you to the following concepts:
- Scientists use taxonomies to organize things, helping students and colleagues to see similarities and differences.
- They create logical nomenclatures, providing a rich vocabulary for others to communicate.
- They document axioms or principals, providing a foundational understanding to build on.
- And they create visual models that enable others to mentally explore tiny systems like a molecule or enormous systems like an ecosystem.
By creating taxonomies, nomenclatures, axioms, and visual models, scientists create guides that help to frame observations and make sense of an immense amount of information.
Here’s how you can apply these concepts as tools for explaining new initiatives:
Design your taxonomy
The branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms; systematics
All organizations and systems have some sort of structure. Organic growth often develops that structure over time. And because of that, it can be haphazard or confusing. While it may not be possible to reorganize your entire company or all your products from the ground up, creating some categorizations can help.
For example, many mature organizations have complex product and service offerings. They may provide standard and semi-custom solutions, different products for different markets, and service lines with overlapping activities. While this segmentation and variance can offer a lot of value for customers, employees may find it difficult to keep track of. And that can make it difficult for internal teams to come up with new products and services or create innovative customer experiences.
No matter how complex your company’s offerings are, you need to come up with a logical scheme for organizing them. Biologists organize flora and fauna based on kingdom, phylum, class, and species. Likewise, taxonomy can be one of the most powerful tools for explaining your product ecosystem. Try structuring your products and services based on customer type, geography, customization, scale, and more.
Define your nomenclature
The devising or choosing of names for things, especially in a science or other discipline
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Perhaps—but if you were naming hundreds of flowers to easily distinguish them, chances are you wouldn’t use arbitrary names like “rose” and “daffodil.” Instead, you would try to come up with names that were structured, so that simply based on the name, I could figure out what it referred to. Chemists do this with elements and compounds, using particular suffixes and prefixes to indicate what the substance is. For instance, all compounds that contain alcohol, use the suffix “-ol-“, such as methanol, ethanol, and propylene glycol.
Developing a nomenclature is one of the most important tools for explaining the layout of an organization that has grown organically. For instance, say you have 16 different sales teams spread across different areas of your company. Some sell products, some sell services, some handle insides sales, and some focus on new business. They cover a variety of geographical areas and report to different leaders. The teams’ names probably were devised over time and may not be parallel. If I’m working on innovating service offering for existing clients, I need to know which teams focus on those areas. Naming the teams with structures like “North American Services Inside Sales” and “Asia Products New Business” can help outsiders like me quickly understand who does what.
Document your axioms
An established, accepted, or self-evidently true statement or proposition.
If axioms or principles are so self-evident, why do we need to document them? Employees can easily forget to apply established rules. And sometimes things are so self-evident that we forget they are, in fact, rules.
This is especially true when you’re exploring new territory, such as for innovation or process improvement. Without a clear understanding of your axioms, you may find that you’ve wandered off the trail and have ended up somewhere you didn’t intend to go.
So spend some time thinking about what your principals are, then write them down. They could be rules defining what kinds of solutions you’re looking for or your company’s strategy in a particular area. The rules can even be “don’t dos”, like Don’t acquire new technologies or Don’t hire new team members. The important thing is to document them clearly so they’re easy to reference and help your team stay on course.
Create visual models
The graphic representation of objects and systems of interest
There’s an old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, but when we’re working with complex systems, this statement couldn’t be truer. Whether a simple chart or graph or a detailed illustration, a visual model can often provide clarity that words alone can’t.
Visual models are also powerful tools for explaining complex concepts. For example, you can design a dashboard of all of the projects and opportunities you’re exploring. Figure out a few key pieces of information about each one to display. Format them in the same way, and arrange them to help the reader understand how they relate. With minimal effort, you’ve created a tool that will help your team easily understand the big ideas.
Think back to your childhood science classroom. There might have been an illustrated drawing of the “water cycle” on the wall. It shows how water is evaporated from the earth’s surface, captured as vapor in clouds, and then returned to the earth as rain.
Consider using a similar technique to document a business process:
- An order comes in from the customer
- Specifications are sent to operations
- Operations orders supplies from partners
- Supplies arrive and are assembled on the shop floor
- And the logistics team arranges delivery.
Capturing these steps in a visual diagram allows you to see all the moving parts and connections. This way you won’t miss anything. Additionally, it can inspire out-of-the-box ideas for making improvements.
Assembling the right tools for explaining your initiatives
Great innovation relies on great communication. We can’t exchange ideas and talk through concepts if we don’t understand one another. That’s why we need to use all the tools we have to help us share our ideas as clearly as possible. By designing taxonomies, defining nomenclatures, documenting your axioms, and creating visual models, you can support your team’s communication and ideas for innovation.
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