Before setting off on a journey to strange lands, most travelers take time to learn an essential phrase or two in the native tongue. After all, the ability to say “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?” in the local language can mean the difference between a trip you remember forever and one that you want to forget immediately.

The same is true for people in large companies who set off on a quest to innovate – you’re in a strange land, and having a few handy phrases at the tip of your tongue can mean the difference between success and failure.

Here are the four most important phrases you should know as a corporate innovator

What does success look like?

Ask this at the beginning of every innovation effort. If you don’t, it’s very likely that what you view as success and what decision-makers view as success will be two different things.

Staffing up a new innovation team? What does success look like?

Starting a new project? What does success look like?

Developing and testing a prototype? What does success look like?

And don’t accept a vague or even qualitative answer to the question, like “we’ll know it when we see it” or “better employee engagement.”  You need to know precisely what an effort contributes to and how leaders will evaluate the effort. Otherwise, it’s easy for managers to “move the goalposts” right when you think you’re about to score.

We expect a new innovation team to hold five brainstorming sessions and test 3 new products this year

We need this project to generate $10M revenue in 3 years from today

We need to understand how consumers will use this if we don’t give them any directions

Will you help me?

This question is perhaps the most challenging but most potent phrase in the innovation-to-corporate dictionary. 

By the very nature of your work – making something new that creates value – you’re doing something that doesn’t fit cleanly into the existing structure. While that can be liberating, it also means that there are few, if any, people obligated to give you advice, resources, or support. That’s where this phrase comes in.

We all love to feel important and valued, and nothing makes people feel more important or valued than being asked for help. Plus, when you ask for help, people feel like they’re contributing to what you’re doing and start to feel a bit of ownership (or at least fondness) for it. Soon, you not only have advisors, but you also have partners, advocates, and champions. 

Tell me more

This phrase is the ultimate innovation jiu-jitsu phrase because it turns your opponents’ strength (of opinion) against them and gives you powerful insights.

That will never work. Intriguing, tell me more.

We tried it, and it failed; the same thing will happen this time. I didn’t know that, tell me more.

If you do that, you’ll be fired. We don’t want that, so tell me more about why that would result.

Sometimes the rationale behind powerfully delivered dogmatic statements is logical and valid. Often, it’s emotional. The person who said it would never work is afraid that, if it does, their job will be in jeopardy. The person who remembers when it was tried before still bears the scars of that attempt and wants to protect you from the same experience. The person who says you’ll be fired for doing something may think that the rules are stricter than they are, and they’re trying to help you.

This phrase helps you figure out the reason behind the statement, the Why behind the What, so you can figure out what is true versus believed and how to get to your desired outcome.

What do you need to see to say “Yes”?

This question is my personal favorite, taught to me by a good friend, career innovator, and successful entrepreneur.

It is easy to say “No” and, in fact, that is the purpose of many people in a large organization. 

Legal says No to keep the company o the right side of the law and out of lawsuits.

Accounting says No to keep the company financially healthy

Your boss says no because you have more work than you can handle, and this doesn’t seem essential.

Sometimes “No” is the correct answer. But if you start there, you’ll never know if it is the right answer or just the first, easiest, or most instinctual answer. 

So, once you hear “No,” engage the person you’re talking to in a quick intellectual exercise and ask what they need to see to say “Yes.”  By engaging them as an expert and your thought partner, you’re lowering their defenses and bringing them into a problem-solving mindset. Plus, you’re getting valuable insight into the type of data and evidence required to make progress.

What are other phrases every innovator should know?

As anyone who has ever tried to quickly learn a language for an extended trip, you’re best served by seeking out multiple sources. 

After all, if I relied solely on Rosetta Stone to learn Danish before I moved to Copenhagen, I would have arrived knowing only how to say “the girl is on top of the airplane” (phonetically, it’s “pia pa flu-va-ma-skine”) and not “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?”

So what are the phrases you repeatedly use to navigate your corporate innovation journey?