4 Phrases Every Innovator Should Know

4 Phrases Every Innovator Should Know

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?

What “The Princess Bride” Teaches About the Corporate Innovation Experience

What “The Princess Bride” Teaches About the Corporate Innovation Experience

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

The Beginning

“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.

The Middle

“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.

The End

“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.”

6 Lessons from Watching 40 FIFA World Cup Games

6 Lessons from Watching 40 FIFA World Cup Games

I am not a soccer fan but my husband is. So why, as a non-soccer fan, would I watch so many World Cup games?

I could spin a high-minded tale about the importance of diverse experiences in driving empathy and creativity and that “getting out of your comfort zone” and experiencing new things can be as simple as watching a new channel or program.

I could go all business guru and pratter on about the fact that sports tend to produce wonderful case studies of what to do and not to do in the areas of leadership, teaming, and all other things management

But the truth is that I spent most of June sick in bed with something that exactly mirrored Whooping Cough (it wasn’t) and, during the Group Phase, I didn’t have the energy to commandeer the remote control and change the channel. By the time we got to the knock-out phase, however, I had a bit more energy, had adopted several teams as my own (Sweden, Denmark, and England) and was peppering my husband with questions about players, teams, rules, and all other things soccer.

So, with the Final match scheduled for Sunday, thought I would share what I’ve learned about leadership and innovation from watching 40 soccer games.

#1: Teams need Leaders, not managers

Argentina’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli

Argentina’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, yelling from the sidelines (SOURCE: Getty — Contributor)

Untold books have been written on this subject and it played out for the world to see during Argentina’s World Cup run.

Argentina was considered one of the top contenders for the World Cup, having come in 2nd during the 2014 World Cup. The country has some of the world’s greatest players and perhaps none are greater than “The Magician,” Lionel Messi. With such a dominant line-up, it would seem that the coach’s job would be relatively easy — win the trust and respect of the team’s stars, inspire them to play well together as a team and then get out of the way.

But Argentina’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, couldn’t seem to do that.

During Argentina’s first game, three top players were inexplicably benched and the game, which Argentina should have won easily, ended in a tie (more on that in the next lesson). For the next game, Sampaoli “went with a bizarre 3-man backline” (I don’t know exactly what that means but “bizarre” is never a word you want associated with your starting line-up) and the “disconnect between Aguero, Messi, and the others was apparent from the first minute.”

The result? Argentina lost to Croatia 0–3 and the players staged a coup, holding a meeting with the Argentine FA chiefs (basically the “front office” of the team) to demand that Sampaoli and the entire coaching staff be fired as part of a “pact for life” because “the players want to build a team.”

The coup failed. Sampaoli was allowed to keep his job (but was told he would be fired at the end of the competition). And the players, having no confidence or respect for the coach, resisted, fielding their own starting line-up for the third and final game of the Group Stage, a 2–1 victory over Nigeria.

Argentina struggled in the lead-up to the World Cup and underperformed during its first two games because it didn’t have a Leader (someone the team respects and wants to follow), it had a Manager (someone who demands obedience based on a title or organization hierarchy). When leaders finally rose up, it was too late — Argentina barely qualified for the Knock-out stage and promptly lost 4–3 to France.

#2: Don’t get hung up on job titles. Hire for skills.

Lionel Messi taking a penalty kick

Lionel Messi takes his shot at Iceland’s goalie

In the first game of the Group Stage, Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup, found itself playing Argentina. As if that were not challenging enough, in the 64th minute of a tied game, Argentina was granted a penalty kick and Lionel “The Magician” Messi stepped to the line. All he had to do was send the ball past Iceland’s goalie and his team would have a 2–1 lead.

He missed.

To be more specific, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, one who makes 76% of his penalty kicks, had his kick blocked by a goalie who is better known for directing a Coca-Cola commercial than for playing soccer. When asked how he achieved such an impossible feat, Hannes Halldorsson, a former filmmaker turned goalie, attributed his success to “film study.”

Sure, Halldorsson has soccer skills (basic job requirements) but kudos to Iceland’s coach for seeing value in non-traditional experience and to Halldorsson for using them to prepare for the big game.

#3: If you’re going to talk smack, you better be able to back it up

Denmark’s goalie, Kasper Schmeichel

Denmark’s goalie, Kasper Schmeichel, is PUMPED

Sticking with the theme of Nordic goalies, let’s talk about Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel. If there were such a thing as Danish soccer royalty, it would be the Schmeichels.

Peter Schmeichel, the family patriarch, was voted world’s best goalkeeper in 1992 and 1993, captained Denmark to a championship in the 1992 UEFA World, AND captained Manchester United to the 1999 Champions League title and the Treble (it’s like the Triple Crown but for English soccer and it happens about as frequently…which is rarely). His son, Kasper made his World Cup debut this year and promptly beat his father’s record of most playing minutes (533 to be exact) for Denmark without conceding a goal.

So yeah, if Kasper talks smack to opposing players, daring them to try to get the ball past him, it’s pretty certain that he can back it up.

Until he can’t.

In Denmark’s match against Australia, Schmeichel came out of the goal to get in the face of a Mile Jedinak while the player was lining up for his penalty kick. Trash talk is nothing new in sports (in fact, I’d argue that it has been honed to a fine and humorous art form) but whatever Schmeichel said apparently went too far for commentators on social media, in the press, and even game officials who warned him about getting too close to the Australian.

A few seconds later, the ball went screaming past Schmeichel, scoring the tying goal for Australia and ending Schmeichel’s record.

#4: Don’t be afraid to experiment (and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re experimenting too much)

Mexico's National Football team coach, Juan Carlos Osorio

Mexico’s Tinkerer-In-Chief, Juan Carlos Osorio

Juan Carlos Osorio, Mexico’s coach, has the highest winning percentage of any Mexican national coach in the past 80 years. So why were 85,000 fans shouting “Fuera!” (Out!) at him during the team’s 1–0 victory over Scotland during a World Cup warm-up game in June?

Because he took the field with a new starting line-up.

It was his 48th different starting line-up in his 48 games as a national coach. That is a new line-up Every. Single. Game.

His tinkering continued into the World Cup where a new line-up beat defending World Cup Champions Germany only to be replaced by a new new line-up for game 2’s match-up against South Korea (which Mexico also won).

In his 52nd game as Mexico’s coach, Osorio changed tactics and did NOT change his line-up. They lost 3–0 to Sweden.

#5: Your performance, not your reputation, matters most

German players Mario Gomez (23) and Mats Hummels (5)

German players Mario Gomez (23) and Mats Hummels (5) react to losing to South Korea and their elimination from the tournament

Speaking of Germany, 2014’s World Cup champs came into the tournament ready to defend their title, ranked #1 in the world by FIFA, and with a 10–0 record in qualifying rounds.

They didn’t even make it out of the Group Stage.

How shocking was this? I think The Guardian summed it up nicely:

This, then, is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. There are certain events so apocalyptic that it feels they cannot just happen. They should be signalled beneath thunderous skies as owls catch falcons and horses turn and eat themselves. At the very least there should be a sense of fury, of thwarted effort, of energies exhausted. And yet Germany went out of the World Cup in the first round for the first time in 80 years on a pleasantly sunny afternoon with barely a flicker of resistance. There was no Sturm. There was no Drang.

Sports, business, heck, even life, is tough. Past performance should count for something and it usually does — it earns an opportunity. But it’s what you do with that opportunity that determines whether you win or lose.

#6: When all else fails, have a signature hairstyle

After watching 40 games, I have concluded that (1) hair is a big deal in soccer and (2) players must have access to hair product that the general public doesn’t because their hair maintains its original style of 90+ minutes of intense exercise. Some cases in point…


Brazilian star Neymar debuts his World Cup hairstyle against Switzerland. For the next game, delighted fans responded by gluing raw clumps of ramen noodles to their foreheads in support of this style choice (SOURCE: Getty Images)

Olivier Giroud

French player Olivier Giroud’s hair defies gravity. Seriously, this is his hair at the END of a game! How is this even possible?!?!

Christiano Ronaldo

OK, I know that Portuguese star Christian Ronaldo’s hair doesn’t look as crazy as some others but it’s no less important. Prior to their World Cup match against Uruguay, the story of a 2010 match re-surfaced in which one of Uruguay’s players was asked how the team planned to stop Ronaldo. Plan A was to take him out with a tackle. If that didn’t work, Plan B was to “ruffle his hair to annoy him.” Plan A was enacted in the 6th minute of the game and didn’t work, so Uruguay when with Plan B. Ronaldo responded so furiously he was almost kicked out of the game. In the post-game press conference, Marcelo “Hair Ruffler” Sosa commented with amusement that Ronaldo seemed “more upset by me messing up his hair than the foul!”

There you have it. Every business/innovation/leadership/personal style lesson I learned from watching the World Cup. Now it’s off to the hair salon…

3 Alternative Careers for Frustrated Intrapreneurs

3 Alternative Careers for Frustrated Intrapreneurs

I’ve had more than one conversation recently in which an Intrapreneur will ask me, with downcast eyes and voice barely above a whisper, “Has my career been a lie? Is making innovation happen in a big company actually impossible?”

Intrapreneurs have the hardest jobs in the world so it’s understandable that they often get frustrated and sometimes burned out. After all, they face a massive system of hundreds (thousands?) of people who are not only motivated to defend and extend the status quo but who are rewarded for doing so.

While we can’t give up (never give up!), sometimes we need a break. But what is an Intrapreneur to do when they need a break from corporate innovation?

Happily there are lots of options because Intrapreneurs have many valuable yet rare skills than can easily be applied in other roles. Let’s take a look at just a few alternative professions that draw on an Intrapreneur’s unique skillset.

Intrapreneur Skill #1: Making things happen with very few resources

Remember that time you submitted a budget request for $3M to support a team of 5 working to test 3 new businesses that, if launched, would generate $450M annual revenue? Remember when you actually received $1.5M for a team of 3 to test 6 new businesses that, when launched, would generate $1B in new revenue? Remember when you come this close to actually nailing that crazy goal?

You could be a public school teacher

According to to the OECD, from 2010–2014 education spending per student increased 5% across its 35 member companies. In the US, spending per student decreased 4% over the same time frame thanks to a 3% decrease in spending and a 1% increase in student population. Yes, public school teachers are being asked to teach more with fewer resources.

To add insult to injury, according to a survey by Scholastic, teachers spend $530, on average, out of their own pockets and teachers in high poverty schools spend, on average, $750 out of their own pockets. Now consider that, according to another OECD report, on average, US teachers are paid “less than 60 percent of the salaries of similarly educated professionals…the lowest relative earnings across all OECD countries with data.”

Intrapreneur Skill #2: Maintaining enthusiasm despite being wrong

Remember that time that you ran an experiment to test your customers’ willingness to pay only to find out that it was half of what you needed to be? Then remember how you spun that result into a positive thing because it allowed you to quickly kill the project and start investing in the next one?

You could be a meteorologist.

Have you ever seen a depressed meteorologist? Nope, neither have I. Even though they’re wrong all the time (actually, they are, on average, wrong only 20% of the time according to this Kansas City meteorologist who has absolutely no reason to doctor the data), they get on TV multiple times a day to predict the 1-day, 5-day, 7-day, and even 10-day forecasts.

They spend hours cranking through computer models to tell us at 6am that there’s a 20% chance of rain today. Armed with this information, we leave home without our umbrellas only to get drenched in something that can only be described as a monsoon during our commutes home. Then they pop back up at 11pm happy about the day’s “beneficial rain” and peppily predicting sun tomorrow.

Intrapreneur Skill #3: Optimism in the face of incredible odds

Remember that time you were super excited to be asked to join a new team at your company that would focus in creating new business models and launching new businesses? Remember how excited you were to present your first batch of ideas to management? Remember how you were only momentarily bummed when all your ideas were crushed because they didn’t support the current business or fit the current business model? Remember coming in the next day full of energy and optimism that you’ll get ’em next time?

You could be a lifelong Cleveland Browns’ fan.

OK, I know that being a Browns’ fan isn’t a profession (it’s an identity) but Browns fans are the world’s best example of this trait. Not only did the Browns lose Every Single Game during the 2017 season, they have put together the worst 3 season record in NFL history, “including all existing franchises from 1920 until now. Of the 32 existing franchises, in every season they have played in every city they have played in, with every wacky nickname attached, no one has had a worse three-season run.” Yet, despite being the worst team in history, Browns fans still show up to games, even when the bitter winter wind whips off Lake Erie and swirls around the stadium. They’re so steadfast that The New York Times actually wrote an article about them and their unwavering belief that “there’s always next year.”

There you go, dear Intrapreneurs, just a few of the thrilling careers where you can apply the skills you’ve honed fighting the good fight in corporate America.

As for me, I’m going to stick with Intrapreneurship because dealing with kids all day is my version of hell, I’m pretty sure meteorology requires math, and my heart is still broken for the 1997 Cleveland Indians so I can’t take on any more Cleveland sports pain. More importantly, I still think Intrapreneurship is a hell of a lot of fun. Most of the time.