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?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post using quotes from “Moneyball” (the movie, not the book) to describe the experience of trying to innovate within a corporate setting.
It was great fun to write, I received tons of feedback, and had many fascinating conversations (plus a fact check on the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino), so I started searching for other movies that inadvertently but accurately describe the journey of corporate innovators.
The Princess Bride
If you have not seen The Princess Bride, stop reading and immediately go watch it. Seriously, there is nothing more important for you to do right now than to crawl out from the cultural rock you’ve been under since 1987 and watch this movie.
If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly watched the movie and know that it is packed with life lessons and quotable quotes. It also captures the reality of innovation within the walls of large companies
“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya
A company’s focus on Innovation usually begins the moment a senior executive, usually the CEO, declares it to be a key strategic priority and promises Wall Street analysts that significant investments will be made.
It then trickles down to business units and functions, with each subsequent layer told to “be more innovative” and “come up with more innovation.”
Then, one day, the responsibility for innovation lands in someone’s lap and stays there. To be honest, it’s usually an exciting day for the person because they’ve been asking questions, suggesting ideas, and pushing for innovation for a long time, and now the powers that be have permitted them to do something about it. They may even have been given a title and budget specific for innovation.
But “innovation” was never defined.
The CEO may think it is an entirely new business, something flashy and new that rivals anything coming out of Silicon Valley.
The Business Unit and Functional Heads may think it’s a new product or technology, something just different enough from the current business to be newsworthy but not so different that it changes how things are done.
And the new Innovation owner thinks it’s new ideas, lots of brainstorming sessions, and networking with entrepreneurs and startups.
Without alignment as to what “innovation” means and what it needs to deliver, the stage is set for misalignment, frustration, and ultimately failure. Al because that word, “Innovation,” does not mean what you think it means.
“We’ll never survive.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.” – Westley
Let’s imagine for a moment that a common definition and set of expectations for innovation is established and everyone up and down the corporate hierarchy is in agreement (this actually does happen, but it takes effort).
The innovation owner has a clear mandate and is hard at work building an innovation pipeline – they’re having lots of qualitative interviews to build customer empathy, they’re facilitating brainstorming sessions to get ideas, they’re building prototypes to get customer feedback. Most importantly, they’re sharing their work with anyone who will listen, asking for feedback, and building supporters and champions.
And then, the chorus begins.
“This will never work”
“You’ll never get approval for that”
“If we do that, we’ll lose customers”
“If you do that, you’ll be fired.”
In these moments, the dark seeds of doubt are planted. The innovation owner must dig deep, reminding themselves that people are only saying those things because it hasn’t worked yet, no one got approval yet, customers haven’t yet weighed in, and you haven’t tried to do that yet.
After all, just because something has never been done, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
“Thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you’re at it, why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
Let’s be honest, most corporate innovation efforts don’t result in the world-changing, life-affirming successes we hop for. Innovators are, by nature and necessity, an optimistic bunch so when things don’t work out as we hope, it hurts. It hurts as much as a paper cut with lemon juice poured on it.
But there is one truth that cuts across all attempts at corporate innovation, no matter whether the journey ends with wild success in the form of massive business growth, happy success in the form of new products and revenue streams, satisfying success in the form of improvements and greater efficiencies, or bitter disappointment because nothing changes and everyone goes on to old or new jobs.
“I supposed you think you’re brave, don’t you?” – Vizzini
“Only compared to some.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
Those who took on the work and responsibility of innovation are brave.
Not only compared to some but compared to most.
It takes guts to try something new. To ask questions. To challenge the status quo. To continue seeking a yes amongst a thousand no’s. To put your reputation, your bonus, and maybe even your job on the line.
And that’s what corporate innovators need to remember – that whatever happens, they were brave. They worked hard, they battled the odds, they did make change happen. Even if it was only how they see and understand the world. Even if it only to get smarter and stronger and prepare for the next time they are called upon to drive change.
Because in that moment, innovators must be ready to say “As you wish.”