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.

The Deep Structure of Your Business

This concept of deep versus surface structure also applies to your business model.

Companies are known for having binders of policies, practices, and processes.

However, these documents typically only describe the surface structure; how the work should be done.

What really needs to be conveyed is the deep structure behind these policies and processes.

Why are they designed this way? What do we want to achieve? What is the impact of doing things this way? Why are we in business?

The "why" and the "what" are the deep structure. You want people to get the deep structure beyond an intellectual level. You want everyone to understand it at a visceral level.

Unfortunately, most businesses document the "how" - the surface structure. And the little deep structure that is provided is given at an intellectual level.

Doing this limits innovation...and true self-expression.

Classical music is an example of surface structure. There is very little room for interpretation. With little variation, different orchestras play a given composition in very similar ways.

Jazz, on the other hand, is often about the deep structure: the chords, rhythm, and time signature. Armed with this information, a jazz ensemble can improvise and innovate within the confines of this intention, rather than being forced to play a specific set of notes. The players are free to express what comes to them in the moment, while adhering to the imposed guidelines. They feel the music in their bones.

When organizations focus on the deep structure, improvisation begins to emerge.  Innovation becomes a more natural act because everyone is clear on the "why" and "what" - and to some extent, the "who." From there, they can innovate the "how." Work becomes a truer expression of each individual.

Stop investing so much energy in defining surface structure. Make sure everyone understands the deep structure. This will save time and increase the level of innovation within the organization.

Published on: Oct 30, 2018