Sunday, March 20, 2011

Baloney, or the Power of a Common Language

My colleague Piyush and I recently got into a heated debate about one of Innosight’s portfolio companies.

“The company needs to start raising money soon, or it is never going to realize its full potential,” Piyush argued.

“That’s utter baloney,” I responded. “The company is already in market and earning revenue. It needs to figure out its business model before it raises more money.”

Piyush looked at me blankly. At first I thought the brilliance of my argument had stunned him into silence. Then I thought perhaps it was because he is a vegetarian and didn’t appreciate the meat reference.

Then it dawned on me. “You don’t know what baloney means, do you?” I asked.

“I know it is some kind of lunch product, but what does it have to do with our discussion?” Piyush responded.

“Baloney” as a shorthand way of saying “that’s not correct” was vernacular that hadn’t made it to Singapore.

Even though the official language of Singapore is English, and people in most places that I visit in the region speak amazingly good English, it was yet another painful reminder that there are language differences across the globe. Anyone who likes a good sports metaphor knows this. Say “hit a home run” and people in India might look at you blankly (“sticky wicket” works well, however). A “touchdown” refers to the end of a mundane flight not some dramatic event, unless the audience contains American football or rugby fans.

This “common language” barrier is one of the hidden challenges that can inhibit innovation inside large companies. Here’s a simple test. Gather six people from your company together. Have each of them write down on a piece of paper their definition of innovation, and who in the company should be working on innovation. I am willing to bet that you’ll get a range of different answers.

Read the rest at Scott’s Havard Business Review blog.

Scott D. Anthony is managing director of Innosight Asia-Pacific.

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