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5 words that kill innovation and 1 phrase that can bring it back.

A young boy wearing a bomber jacket and goggles is ready to fly his homemade jetpack. He is standing in the tall grass with arms raised on a hill in England ready for adventure.

We’ve all been there. You’re in a meeting to come up with a solution to a stubborn problem or generate ideas for a new service when someone suggests an idea that just might work!
A momentary sense of hope begins to rise and then, those 5 magic words land on the table like a wet cement… “That will never work because….”.

You feel the hope drain from the room like air out of a tire. ‘Why does this always happen?’
There are many reasons why people might criticize a new idea, find fault, or seem to resist change. Perhaps they were part of the team that created the original process, maybe they did ‘try that before’ and ‘it didn’t work’ (back then). Maybe they value excellence and they’re reluctant to try something that hasn’t been tested. But I’m going to suggest… it’s just a habit.

Think about it.  From the time we’re in kindergarten we learn games like ‘which one of these doesn’t belong’.  The best lawyers (on TV anyway) are the ones who find the most holes in the other lawyer’s argument.  Edward De Bono suggests that we’ve learned to be ‘critical thinkers’ from scholars like Plato and Socrates where if an idea could withstand tremendous criticism – then it must be true. In organizations we teach people risk management, quality control, and risk mitigation.   What I like about that is – it can keep us from hurting ourselves or implementing a process that has not been well thought out.  What is challenging is, it adds to the host of other culture norms that can discourage people from offering up new ideas such as;

  • The risk of sounding stupid
  • Being rejected, or heaven forbid;
  • Appearing too positive (you know, the one who always ‘wears the rose colored glasses’).

So how do you encourage innovation and openness to change?  Create a new habit by using a phrase like “What I like about that is….

I learned this technique while in The Coaches Training Institutes Leadership Program from an improv comedian.

For example, someone on your team says ‘we should offer every new customer one month of free service’.  Though your first thought might be ‘that would cost a fortune’ or ‘our existing customers would be offended’, try starting with What I like about that is….

  • It could attract more new customers, or
  • It could create more loyalty in our new customers and they’ll stay on.

By first finding good in an idea, you’re encouraging people to offer up new ideas, alternatives, or possibilities.  What I like about that is – the more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to come up with an idea that will work – that hits the sweet spot.  And don’t forget – just like in classic brainstorming, people will build off of each others ideas, and an idea that at first seems unworkable, gets shaped into something that can work.

Now you may be thinking ‘That will never work because….’;

  • What if the idea really won’t work?
  • We can’t just run off and implement every idea – after all – we’re running a business here.

I agree – you don’t want to implement just any idea without ensuring it has a high probability of creating the outcome you want.  And you don’t have to. The first step is finding good in the idea.  Then you can explore the risks or logical downsides later.

Want to try it?  (just say yes).  Here are 4 ideas that will help you to be successful.

  1. Model the way: As a leader – you go first.  When an idea is put on the table, you start but saying ‘what I like about that idea is’.  For example, someone says ‘we should hire more customer service reps to deal with the increased calls’…what I like about that is:
    1. ‘Customers would feel more valued because we’d respond to them more quickly’.

Remember, you haven’t said ‘yes let’s implement this right away’. You’re simply stating one thing that you like about that idea.  You can get to the risks later.

  1. Pull back the curtain: Let your employees know what you’re up to.  Help them understand why innovation is important to you, to your organization, your customers, and them. Let them know that while your intent is to find the good in each idea it does not mean we’ll be implementing every idea.        
  2. Use a Process or structure: Use a process that helps you encourage new ideas, alternatives or new possibilities but also evaluate ideas.

Here is a suggested sequence that borrows a few concepts from Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method.

  1. brainstorming new ideas (5 minutes)
    1. More is better
    2. Crazy is good
    3. Build on each others ideas
  2. Choose 1-2 ideas that look most intriguing (5 minutes)
  3. What are the benefits of going with this idea? (5 minutes)
  4. What are the logical risks or draw backs? (5 minutes).
  5. Gut check – does it still seem workable? (1 minute) If so;
  6. Next Steps (5 minutes).

You can see that in 26 minutes, you’ve generated a bunch of new ideas, thoroughly explored 1 or 2 ideas, and decided on some next steps.  26 minutes!

  1. Make it a habit: Find ways to make this part of your culture such as having a section of your weekly meeting dedicated to generating new ideas.  You can spontaneously ask for 5 minutes of creative brainstorming, or use it in your one on one conversations.  Some teams have fun with it by having a 5 minute ‘moratorium’ on negative thinking – they introduce a provocative idea, then each person has to say ‘What I like about that is…’ and share something they like.  Again, you’re practicing the skill of finding good, of seeing possibilities – and that breeds innovation.

A few things to watch out for that could sabotage your good efforts.

  • Sarcasm – ‘what I like about that is…we’ll go bankrupt, lose our jobs and not have to work’. This is a criticism disguised as humor. It will sabotage your efforts.
  • ‘ya, but’s….’. One team member gallantly offers a ‘what I like about that is…’ and another team member quickly follows with ‘ya but that will never work because…’.

He Can Fly google image

We don’t have to look very far to find incredible examples of innovation

that have come from what might have seemed like crazy ideas, but someone saw something they liked.

Whether it’s an I-phone with a built in camera, GPS, and flashlight,

a head of lettuce that’s been washed and packaged, or a guy in a winged suit who really can fly –

ideas breed innovation – and what I like about that is….

Matt MacEachern

Lidera Consulting Ltd.


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