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Curtis Carlson, the entrepreneur who helped revive SRI and turn it into the company that created the iPhone’s voice assistant Siri, often asks groups of would-be innovators to write their definition of “innovation” on Post-it notes. The definitions never agree. In fact, he told me, “sometimes they don’t even make sense”.

The moral is obvious: if a company’s people cannot communicate the how, why and what of innovation to each other, the chances of progress are low.

Within, say, the laboratory, innovation may turn out to be perfectly possible. The lab head will understand the researchers and vice versa. The trouble starts when the lab tries to transfer its ideas to the rest of the company for implementation.

Of four conditions for successful innovation laid out by Betsy Ziegler, chief executive of 1871, the Chicago-based technology incubator, a shared vocabulary is one. When you take a “drone’s eye view” of the business, what you see must be common across the organisation, she told a panel at last week’s Drucker Forum in Vienna. 

A short distance away from the Hofburg imperial palace, where the management conference was held, exactly such a drone’s eye view was on display. Two views, in fact. The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s epic exhibition of the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder brings together his paintings of the Tower of Babel — one usually on display in Rotterdam, the other in Vienna — depicting the Old Testament legend of hubristic citizens’ project to construct a tower that would reach to heaven. God’s revenge was to “confound their language” so the people could no longer understand each other.

The Vienna version, the bigger and busier of the two images, is a snapshot of innovative human activity.

Across the painting, antlike workers have built a variety of contraptions to transport materials up the side of the half-finished building, which is already tall enough to be wreathed in cloud. In the foreground, the king who ordered this monument to human ingenuity is bringing new orders to the stone-cutters. The knowledge that with one tongue-tying thunderbolt this tottering hive of invention will be rendered futile hangs over the painting.

This would be a useful cautionary image to attach to any memo from the innovation team to head office and back again, or between the strategy team and workers on the front line.

“There’s always a gap between a vision and the everyday business, and people are frustrated if they can’t deliver tangible results every day,” Yoshi Takashige, who works on digital innovation at Fujitsu, told one panel last week. Peter Oswald, chief executive of the paper and packaging group Mondi, recalled how one big innovation project stalled in part for lack of understanding of what the customer wanted and what the plan was meant to achieve. Instead, he said, “it was all about coming up with cool ideas and doing something really novel . . . and it backfired.”

The Babelians at least had a purpose and a clear objective when they built the foundations of their tower. This is one way of helping to align all parts of a business. Linda Hill of Harvard Business School calls shared purpose and shared values, the “glue” of organisations, while common “rules of engagement” are “the grease” to ensure things get done.

According to Mr Carlson, companies should try to teach the language of innovation to everyone in the organisation. He points out that Apple’s double act of Steve Jobs, the innovator, and Tim Cook, the operations expert, was the exception that proves the rule that many companies “put good managers in charge of their innovation processes” who do not understand how innovation works.

When Klöckner, the German steel company, wanted to spread digital innovation across the group, it did so by offering access to a “digital academy” to staff who wanted to become innovators. And it broke open the rigid channels of communication between levels and units of the group, using corporate networking tools such as Facebook and Yammer.

As Bruegel’s painting suggests, in the 16th century, and well beyond, the top-down communicators were kings and emperors, mandating innovative ideas to their subjects. Their authority bound widely disparate territories and peoples. Such regimes lasted until at least a century ago.

Unfortunately, imperial leadership endured in companies. But as their hierarchical structure is dismantled in favour of looser, more networked, more collaborative organisations, bosses will find it ever harder to command innovations into existence. They will need to listen more carefully and encourage staff to find a common language, or risk the whole enterprise collapsing into incomprehensible babble. 

andrew.hill@ft.com

Twitter:@andrewtghill

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