Cowabunga, Communicators: Helping Your Organization Ride the Innovation Wave

Cowabunga, Communicators: Helping Your Organization Ride the Innovation Wave

Businessweek in 2008 declared the term “innovation” dead, “killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve.” But its use has only grown since then, worming its way into press releases, web copy and media coverage at an increasingly flurrying pace. What is the lure of one of the most overused buzzwords in marketing?

Like those who understand the science of ocean waves, smart business communicators know the crest of innovation only carries energy because of its underlying disturbances. Innovation as a strategy only succeeds when businesses have a culture of resiliency and a long-term view.

Case in point: In 2014 when IBM faced a critical choice between innovation and commoditization, CEO Ginni Rometty seized the moment to transform the company. Rometty chose to turn the business model inside out by moving away from selling low-value hardware units in favor of investing in subscription-based, cognitive computing services. Along the way, IBM also became the first company in history to register 7,000 patents in a single year.

It’s in this vast ocean of “innovators” that communicators must vie for mindshare. In a crowded media environment, the wisdom of the surfer may hold some clues on how to help organizations ride their own waves of innovation like pros instead of drowning in a sea of sameness.


“It’s a cakewalk, when you know how.” – Gerry Lopez, professional surfer

In his 1962 book Diffusion of innovations, Everett M. Rogers introduced his theory that the spread of new ideas can be propelled by four key elements: the innovation itself, communication channels, time, and a social system.

While the innovations themselves often originate within R&D or other business units, the communications channels that enable their awareness and adoption (and framing of their narrative), the timing and speed of their launch, and the social system in which they exist – including mass media, key opinion leaders and organizational or customer relationships – can all be influenced and optimized through strong communications strategy.

As senior communicators, we may have varying degrees of control over these elements independently, but a fundamental understanding of our role in the process can help determine how we should prepare for the swell.

“Never drive away from good surf.” – Roger Sharp, professional surfer

Rogers’ elements of innovation also suggest that not all innovations are created equal – a truism any seasoned communicator knows from experience. Yet, it has been the serial disregard for this fact that has helped contribute to the eventual “buzzification” of the term and increased skepticism of our audiences to truly revolutionary ideas. The successful communicators, then, will likely be the ones that help their colleagues sort the good surf from the bad. Because even the best surfer isn’t hanging ten on a dud of a wave.

Truly disruptive innovations such as Uber break through the clutter, not only because of their simple and powerful story (“Personalized, hassle-free transportation!”), but because they turn an entrenched industry on its head and demand that we ask bigger questions about the way we do things (“In a driverless, ridesharing economy, do I even need a car anymore?”).

Using the latest tools, trends and market intelligence to help your team build integrated campaigns around the strongest initiatives will not only yield more impactful results, but exhibit a smarter, more effective allocation of resources that can solidify your seat at the table. By aligning with key internal stakeholders in engineering and operations early in the process, communications can be seen as a critical partner and solution provider, not an afterthought or an obstacle to be overcome.

“[Surfing] is like the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no getting out” – Kelly Slater, professional surfer

Now that you’ve done the hard work of consensus building to ensure the whole team is paddling in the same direction, the real fun can begin. And just as in surfing, timing and commitment become the crucial lynchpins of the campaign.

Campaigns wash out when they fail to fully map the strategy in advance. This allows the entire organization to be fully committed and defines key touchpoints (KPIs) throughout the process to keep your audiences and leadership fully engaged.

The five-step decision-making process outlined in Diffusion of innovations clearly defines the stages of adoption and establishes a framework for successful communications campaigns.

  • Knowledge. Your audience’s first exposure to an innovation is gained from basic facts and figures. You’ve created shallow awareness, but have not provided enough information to inspire them to learn more about the innovation.
  • Persuasion. Your audience now has enough information to become interested in the innovation and begins actively seeking additional details to inform their decision to adopt.
  • Decision. Your audience begins to internalize the concept of your innovation and weighs the advantages and disadvantages of adoption in their own lives. This is the most crucial of the process for a communicator and also the most difficult one to measure.
  • Implementation. Your audience takes the leap! You’ve successfully persuaded them to adopt, but your work is not done. At this point the audience also determines the usefulness of the innovation, potentially prompting secondary surges of information such as reviews or deeper profiles.
  • Confirmation. Your audience finalizes its decision to continue using the innovation. If you’ve successfully converted enough early adopters, you could be on your way to reaching critical mass.

The process, and your campaign, can get derailed at any stage if the innovation and the expectation don’t meet. Remember when Apple first launched “Maps” in 2012 to a chorus of jeers after overlooking many towns and businesses and misplacing famous landmarks? In a rare move for a company synonymous with successful launches, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized for the misstep and even encouraged users to download competitors’ products while they fixed the errors. Apple has since recovered some ground by investing significantly in getting Maps up to speed since then. Despite being the native application, today Apple only holds a modest lead over Google on iPhones in the U.S., according to research firm comScore—showing just how crippling (and expensive) a premature launch can be.

“There is not one right way to ride a wave.” Jamie O’Brien, professional surfer

Despite all the complex social science involved, the message is simple: The bar for most people to adopt new innovations is incredibly high. In established markets, it can be difficult to unseat the entrenched leaders, and even the markets most comfortable with disruption can have impossible thresholds to establish meaningful loyalty and customer retention. So what reason do we have for hope that our hard work can move the needle?

Alongside the scores of examples in the last few years alone validating Rogers’ model, we should all find confidence in the fact that we’re not in it alone. Upon closer examination, as communications leaders we find ourselves in the role of sun-bleached surf instructor, helping our organizations spot the perfect innovation wave and carve a flawless path through the often choppy surf. Like any well-practiced tactician, we each carry with us the deep institutional knowledge, understanding of our markets and mastery of our communications channels necessary to offer invaluable counsel our teams crave.

Think you’re ready for the adventure? Your wave is waiting.

Josh is a leader in client service management, fusing business acumen and communications to drive big-picture growth. In his role, Josh oversees an award-winning team of professionals with a proven record of success within the advanced manufacturing, clean technology and building solutions categories. Since joining G&S in 2008, Josh has continued to help companies build strategic frameworks for communicating about innovation. He specializes in internal and external communications strategies, including national and trade media relations, event planning and support, digital and social media strategy, crisis communications, corporate branding initiatives and program measurement. Josh graduated from Franklin & Marshall College with a B.A. in Business Organizations and Society. Josh has traveled across the country and internationally to run in competitive road and relay races, taking on race courses with the same team spirit and commitment he provides to his clients.


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