Innovation requires a new vocabulary

“Your well is in your words”, goes an anonymous quote. Most people don’t pay much attention to the words they use. But you’d better do so. Certain words have a hidden power that is either creative or destructive. Today, I want to share with you five secret insights about words – and how they might negatively or positively influence your efforts to produce innovative results.

1. Turn your words around.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “That which opposes produces a benefit.” Nowadays, as a business leader, you’ve probably realised that in order to produce superior results, your firm needs to differentiate its products from the competition through innovation. However, you still might not be aware that in order to create true differentiation, you need to change the words you use in daily communication with your team. In particular, you need to change your adjectives (or related adverbs) by using antonyms.

“To succeed, we must stop being so goddamn normal,” write Ridderstrale and Nordstrom in their book Funky Business.

“If we behave like all the others, we will see the same things, come up with similar ideas, and develop identical products or services. At its best, normal output produces normal results. In a winner-takes-all world, normal = nothing”.

The authors stress that to achieve different values and results, you need to switch from normal to abnormal. Similarly, you need to replace many other words in your daily business conversation: “usual” should be “unusual”, “ordinary” should be “extraordinary”; “reasonable” should be “unreasonable”; “likely” should be “unlikely”; “complex” should be “simple”. In addition, “unbelievable” should be “believable” and “impossible” should be “possible”.

2. Replace disempowering with empowering words

Your attitude is subconsciously influenced by the words you use. Repeat the following words and observe how they make you feel:

(1) I feel “bad” vs I feel “great”, “fantastic” or “terrific”;

(2) I am “tired” vs I am “switched on”, “energetic”, or “alert”;

(3) I feel “weak” vs I feel “strong”, “robust” or “powerful”.

When I recently spent a week at Stanford University and in Silicon Valley, I noticed that all people I met understand the secret of using empowering words. Think about how much innovation has come out of this area during the past 30 years.

3. Avoid the Fatal 6

The American poet e.e. cummings reminds us in his poem “Here is little Effie’s head” to eradicate six words from our communication: “should”, “could”, “would”, “may”, “might”, and “must”. I call them the Fatal 6. Avoid these words as much as possible in innovation. They will divert your thinking away from producing results for an innovation challenge that you are working on. Why?

  • “Should” refers to your past actions from a wishful perspective: “I should have done” this or that. But can you change the past? No, of course not. So don’t waste your time lamenting about “sunk cost”.
  • The conditional words “could” and “would” signal a lack of initiative, decisiveness and action.
  • The words “may” and “might” are often asked to seek validation or approval from others (“May I have permission”). In the sixth of The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments, Pinchot reminds every intrapreneur (a person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation) to be action-oriented: “Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission”.
  • Last but not least: “Must”. This word is always followed by obligations that you are supposed to live up to; it signals the demands and expectations of others. You have the freedom to choose to do what you think is right instead of doing what others want you to do.

4. Beware the most dangerous word

Have a look at the following two sentences and try to find the most dangerous word in any language:

“Your idea is interesting, but we tried it before and it won’t work.”

“You really did a good job, but we will have to lay you off.”

Did you spot it? The word “but” is the most dangerous word because it hammers the real message to you in the second part of a sentence that is started with a nicety. “But” is a very destructive word. And destruction is the antonym of creation. From now on, avoid using this killer word in your communication – or replace every “but” with the word “and”.

5. Finally: Become a Yes-Man

In one of his books, Richard Branson relays the following story: “The staff at Virgin have a name for me. It is ‘Dr Yes’. I find more reasons to do things than not to do them.”

The two little words “no” and “yes” are of tremendous importance for innovation. Do the following exercise to understand why:

  • Say “no” 10 times in quick succession and with a rising volume. Notice that this contracts your inner body parts.
  • Now do the same with the word “yes”, and you will experience the feeling of expansion. Here comes the point: The universe and creation is expanding and not contracting. Hence, align yourself and your team with creation by becoming Yes-Men.

Limit the use of the idea killer word “no” as much as possible. However, remember that it is ok to use “no” in those few situations where someone else wants you to do something that goes against your value system, ethical standards and your sense of integrity.

Let me end with a special treat: The contracting or expanding powers of the words “no” and “yes” work in nearly every language: “nein” und “ja” in German, “non” and “oui” in French, “no” and “si” in Italian, “iie” and “hai” in Japanese, and so on. So far, I have noticed only one language where both the negating and confirming word are both expanding: Thai, where “no” is expressed as “not yes” (mai chai).

© Copyright Dr. Detlef Reis 2008.