We can learn a lot about innovation by studying linguistics…
The other day I found some old VHS tapes (for those a bit younger than I am, this was the predecessor to the DVD). On one was a speech I gave to a couple thousand executives about 20 years ago. I talked about a topic that fascinated me at the time, yet I did very little with the concept since. But it is as relevant today as it was two decades ago.
In linguistics, there is the concept of deep structure and surface structure. By digging into these, we can gain some insights into the way innovation really works.
Deep versus Surface Structure
The deep structure is the meaning; what you want to convey.
The surface structure is the actual configuration of words, used to express what you want to say.
When a client asked me to help them polish the words in their mission and vision statements, I passed. I didn’t feel it was a worthwhile endeavor.
When you debate the specific words that should be in your mission or vision statement, you are automatically focusing on the surface structure.
But if your goal is alignment and understanding, the words are not as important as the intent – the deep structure.
Access to the deep structure is not intellectual. It is visceral.
To do this, I suggested that the team visit/interview clients. Talk to individuals and organizations that have been impacted by their work. Talk about “why” you are in business. Have each person on the team share personal stories. Get emotional.
The specific wording of a purpose, mission or vision statement (the surface structure) is not as important as the meaning behind the words (the deep structure). This is where you tap into implicit motivations.