I had a “Lost in Translation” moment a couple weeks ago in a meeting with 20 French and Russian executives. It was the first time I’d ever been in a meeting where someone simultaneously translated the discussion into ear pieces. I spent the whole meeting wondering if they really understood what we were trying to communicate. Many of my jokes fell flat and their questions back (through the same translator) seemed like non-sequiturs.
This language gap made me think of the cultural gap that exists in business, particularly around innovation. We may all speak English in business life, but that doesn’t mean that we speak the same language. Innovation that challenges the status quo is particularly foreign.
I once took a class with Clayten Christensen, who wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma and coined the term disruptive innovation. He described that businesses typically ignore disruptive innovations. Even if they recognize a disruptive innovation, they are reluctant to take advantage of it, because it threatens their existing business. Often they wait to take action until it is too late.
While taking this class, my bike route took me past the Polaroid headquarters in Cambridge. They were a classic case of a business that ignored a disruptive innovation in digital photography. As if to prove Christensen’s point, Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection midway through the class. Failing to acknowledge a disruptive innovation ultimately led to the demise of the company.
When trying to advance any form of innovation that challenges the status quo, we have to recognize the cultural intertia that will block those types of projects. Without overcoming the translation gap, those ideas will never get off the ground.