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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 challenge when someone suggests an idea that just might work!  A a sense of hope begins to rise when someone says “That’ll never work because….”.  This article is about the 5 words that kill innovation and one phrase that can bring it back.

5 words that kill innovation

Whether it’s the phrase “That’ll never work because…” or “we have tried that before” these comments can smother creativity like a bag of wet cement. 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! Maybe they value excellence and they’re reluctant to try something that hasn’t been tested and might be substandard. But I’m going to suggest… it’s just a habit.

Critical thinking is 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 fault 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 though is that 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’).

1 phrase that can bring it back

So how do you encourage innovation and openness to change?  Create a new habit. 1 phrase that can bring it back is “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.
  • We can offer our existing customers one month free when they renew.

Start with the good

By first finding good in an idea, you’re encouraging people to offer up new ideas, alternatives, or possibilities.  Whenever people offer a new idea or possibility – they’re taking a risk – remember? They might be afraid of sounding stupid, unrealistic, or too positive. When we start by finding good in someones idea we begin to create a culture where it’s safe to take risks and new ideas are encouraged.

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.

What if it won’t work?

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

  • What if the idea really won’t work?
  • What if it would cost more money than we’d ever get back?
  • What if it’s unethical, or goes against our values, or…
  • 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.

Here is an extremely efficient, effective way to thoroughly explore an idea, including the logical risks, before implementing it.

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!

Success Tips

Want to try it?  (just say yes).  Here are 4 ideas that will help you to create a culture of innovation, in a way that serves your clients, the organization and your employees. 

  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 do it. You’re simply stating one thing that you like about that idea.  You can get to the risks later.

  1. Be transparent: 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: Use a process that helps you encourage new ideas, alternatives or new possibilities but also evaluate ideas. Like Edward DeBono’s 6-thinking hats technique outlined about.
  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 Note of caution

There are a few things to watch out for that could sabotage your efforts.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…’.
man with goggles in a white wing suit flying through the air high over the plains.

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 for us, or a guy in a winged suit who really can fly – ideas breed innovation – and what I like about that is….

If you’re looking for more leadership strategies that are easy to use, and get results, reach out to us at lidera, we’d love to support you any way we can.



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