Shortly after my 21st birthday, I went on hiatus from university, and lived in Uruguay for a year as a missionary. Because I had studied Spanish in school, I thought I knew Spanish. It turns out I didn’t; I could say little, understand less. After eight months, when I was assigned to a town in the interior of Uruguay where no one spoke English, I finally learned to speak, understand, and even think in Spanish. I had to, to survive.
In retrospect, as I look to implement disruptive ideas there are several lessons to be extracted from my experience of “do or die” language immersion:
The importance of translation. A decade ago, when I was still a sell-side analyst at Merrill Lynch, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: invite our female institutional investor clients to a screening of a documentary about women on Wall Street. Ten years ago screenings were much more expensive, and still rather exclusive. Importantly, none of our competitors were doing anything like this. I was confident that inviting female clients to see a movie about women juggling career and family life would be a relationship-building event, paying off over the long haul. In retrospect, I had forgotten to convert my ideas into management’s currency. If they were speaking costs in dollars, I needed to speak revenue in dollars. When I didn’t, my idea got lost in translation.
The importance of speaking a “foreign” language was reinforced recently when I needed a new slide depicting the gears that drive innovation for one of my speeches. Because I don’t speak graphic design, my explanation to designer Brandon Jameson went something like: “Uh, I kind of want this squiggly line, and these circles somewhere on the page, and the words over here somewhere. You know what I mean?”, I finally drew something rudimentary. He did too. My simple attempt to speak in a language my graphic designer could understand, and his willingness to make the effort to understand me, produced a visual far better than I had hoped for.
When we’re trying to implement a new idea, explore a dream, or disrupt ourselves, we often have to bridge a language gap: for example, the seemingly impenetrable dialect of technology, or the specialized lingo associated with a particular profession, jargon of venture capitalists, or even the patois of a different team within your firm. I realize now that living in another country was intrinsic in my understanding the importance of translating messages correctly, even when everyone in the room is speaking “English.”
Why pulling people in is more successful than pushing them on board. The second lesson I learned was about soft power or the ability to “influence nations far beyond the hard edge of traditional balance of power politics,” a concept developed by Harvard political theorist Joseph Nye. As one would imagine, soft power rests on foreign policy and political values. It also relies on culture. The U.S., for example, exerts soft power by exporting over a half a million U.S.-educated foreign students each year. Having lived in Latin America, I was on the receiving end of soft power.
It’s true that I was primed to like Latin America, given that I had studied Spanish in school, and felt an affinity with the culture because I was born in a Spanish-speaking country. Once in Uruguay, I came to have a genuine fondness, indeed a love for its people and culture. So much so that when I graduated from college, I wanted my career to include Latin America. And it has. While working on Wall Street, I traveled to Latin America no less than 100 times, first as a banker, then an equity analyst. No employer had to sell me on the region: soft power had already made the sale.
There are a number of ways organizations can leverage soft power. Consider, for example, how ONE, a non-partisan entity that fights poverty and preventable disease, primarily in Africa, launched their ONEMoms partnership that invited and hosted a delegation of American mothers for a visit to Ethiopia last year. Having experienced the inner workings of another country and culture these women became committed ambassadors for the children of Africa.
One of the best ways to exert soft power is to make an organization a great place to work, as Marissa Mayer has done with Yahoo. With employee satisfaction at a five-year high, Yahoo employees have become brand ambassadors. Or consider Hubspot, an inbound marketing software company whose value proposition is soft power. One customer who used to spend $800,000 a year on newspaper ads now spends $12,000 on Hubspot software that helps their business attract customers rather than “coerce” them, with better results. It’s easy to want to carry a big stick to get ideas implemented, but I have learned from my experience abroad that inviting people into your world and speaking softly is often the better way.
Why cross-disciplinary collaboration drives innovation. My third lesson — hindsight can be breathtaking — was the importance of reaching across the aisle. Immersed in a foreign culture, an American in Uruguay, I was on the margin of my culture, reaching across to the margin of another culture, trying to meet people in the middle. In this instance, being able to speak Spanish meant I could cross most divides and find the common ground necessary to be effective in my role as a missionary. More recently, I experienced this reaching out into unknown territory in my collaboration with MIT-trained engineer Juan Carlos Mendez. There was amoat separating our respective disciplines; as we did the work of bridging that moat, we each gained new knowledge and insights, and we ultimately co-wrote the HBR piece “Throw Your Life a Curve.”
Dr. Belle Liang, professor of psychology at Boston College, explains, “The individual on the margin is associated with two different worlds, but doesn’t completely belong to either. While marginal individuals experience negative consequences to their psychological well-being, as a result of an ‘in-between’ position, there is also a liberating perspective toward both sides of the fence.”
A perfect example of this is Dave Blakely, who began his career at IDEO as an engineer. He could have worked his way up to manage technical staff, but instead he volunteered to become a project manager. As Dave made the decision to move to the margin, many of his peers dismissed this an escape route from the rigor and detail of engineering. But by learning to associate himself with two different disciplines, Blakely broadened his skills, so that today he is the head of technology strategy at IDEO — a firm which by the way, has an ethos of managing on the margin.
Innovation happens when we cultivate diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration, when we play in the in-between. If you’ve learned a new language or lived in a foreign country for a time, you have likely experienced these kind of mind-opening lessons. This can, at times, feel very unpleasant, just as immersing myself in a new language and culture required a big move out of my normal way of living and thinking. But it’s this willingness to live in the unknown for a while that opens a space for truly new ideas. As you are attempting to collaborate, if it feels foreign and outside of your comfort zone, you just might be on the right track. Sprechen sie the language of innovation?
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review
Featured Image Photo Cred