“Talk Me Through This”

Is talk an instant, intuitive leading indicator for innovation?

There are lagging indicators for innovation—signs that say, “You did a good job one year ago, Maam.” Revenue is a lagging indicator—sales were good, but “What have you done for me lately?” Patents are a lagging indicator of innovation success. New products burning up the market are another lagging (and happy) indicator.

Leading indicators are harder to find. What are those real-time signs that progress is being made? Perhaps you can gauge the time your staff is looking for new technology, but there is no direct correlation between scouting and innovation. Time employees spend attending conferences or reading academic literature is valuable but not exactly a leading indicator of innovation.

But what if our bodies told us when we were innovating? Could engagement and enthusiasm be leading indicators for innovation? Because on a personal level, it often is. Craig Irvine and Danielle Spencer, in their book The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, cite Merleau-Ponty when he invited readers to pull back the curtain on conversations.[1] Merleau-Ponty thought we spend a lot of time spouting “second-order speech” or “secondary expressions” that are equivalent to our own “pre-thought thoughts” or well-worn thoughts—mundane stuff, he called it. Maybe our secondary expressions are a set of personal clichés we return to repeatedly—that familiar thought-train that chugs forth when we hear particular words or when certain relational conditions are met.

In contrast, says Merleau-Ponty, authentic words arrive just in time, as it were, in response to engagement. Merleau-Ponty points out that his thinking depends on language as a body function—a body action. Our bodies help us think because we are embodied minds, not just disembodied consciousnesses, contra Mr. Descartes.  

Is it possible that if more authentic words populate our days, those words may hold a clue that new things are going on?

Meetings suck life from humans

Meetings that feature the boss pontificating are boring—the universe knows this. Meetings where participants listen to each other, hear nuance, and compare notes—such meetings are engaging, practical, and fun. Think of students after class at the pub with the professor. Think of mechanics sitting after work describing modifications they’ve made to their cars. Think of the flow of conversation at a barbershop.

In our teams, as we gather, we open spaces for our bodies (which, by the way, remain largely connected to minds) to think. We think with our words, which land on each other as, that’s right, thoughts. Your words land as thoughts in my mind. When Jimmy says “hoagie,” I am immediately hungry—his thought became mine. But lunch is not for two hours, so shut up, Jimmy.

But if Trudy mentions modifying her old smartphone and using it as a camera in her garage, I might have a thought about a camera functioning as an optical sensor and start thinking about where I might use such a sensor. That is the way conversations work—especially when those conversations are peppered with authentic words. The effects are immediate and could serve as, if not leading indicators of business success, then leading indicators of personal success.

We talk endlessly about building organizations that promote innovation. Still, without this basic building block of people having recurring “Aha” moments that comes from using authentic words, it is hard to see how managerial success can result.

Perceptive leaders versus antiwork

When you couple the Great Resignation and the surprise success of the Antiwork subreddit (“Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”), it might seem like listening to our bodies at work is a bad idea. What to do if your body tells you to go home? But for the perceptive leaders, there is a challenge: how can I design a meeting that stimulates discussion which goes beyond secondary expression? And how can I do this not just once but over and over? Wouldn’t that be a place workers want to be?

Because if we can think together as a team…

  • If we can start to call forth small “What if” fictions in our everyday discussions
  • If we find ourselves reading new literature and investigating adjacent technologies, and perhaps rethinking our old designs;

Aren’t those at least leading indicators of personal innovation?

Our best leaders help open those thoughtful spaces for us again and again.


[1] Charon R, Dasgupta S, Hermann N, Irvine C, Marcus E, Colon ER, Spencer D, Spiegel M. The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. NY: Oxford University Press, 2017. 87ff.

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