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These Three Phrases Are Killing Innovation At Your Workplace

Your tone and word choice may be sending the message that it’s not worth exploring new ideas. Here’s how to change that.

These Three Phrases Are Killing Innovation At Your Workplace
[Photo: JOHN TOWNER/Unsplash]

Most of us want to work in an innovative workplace, but you could be subliminally creating a culture that squelches creative thinking. From conversations held during meetings to the tone of internal communications, words can send a message to employees that they shouldn’t spend time exploring new ideas, let alone bring them up to the team.

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“We codify our behaviors, our instincts, and our thinking based on language, and it often happens in ways we don’t anticipate,” says Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect: What Elephants & Epidemics Can Teach Us about Innovation and CEO of The Medici Group, diversity and innovation consultants. “Certain terms and phrases get traction and are repeated over and over. Before you know it, it’s the way you talk within your culture.”

Unfortunately, commonly used business phrases can hurt your motivation to innovate. Here are three to avoid using in your workplace:

1. “Best Practices”

When it’s time to figure out the next right move or a first action, it’s natural to want to follow best practices, but this can send a signal that challenges should be avoided, says Johansson. “All you’re doing is looking at what other companies have been doing,” he says. “Since it takes a while to describe what they did to be successful, best practices are usually two, three, or four years old. They probably aren’t even best practices anymore.”

Using best practices also puts you behind because you have to spend time researching them, says Johansson. “They don’t enable you to tie innovative, creative thinking to evolving your work,” he says. “If Stephanie Meyer had used best practices in her Twilight series books, she would have written about vampires that sleep during the day and burn when they’re in sunlight. Instead, she created vampires that go to high school and glitter like diamonds.”

While following the blueprints of others should be avoided, there is one caveat. Best practices can encourage innovation when they’re inspired by industries other than your own, says Johansson. “A hospital in the U.K. had struggled with bringing patients from the surgical unit to ICU,” he says. “Instead of looking at how other hospitals do it, they gained inspiration from a racing pit crew. They dropped their error rate by using another industry as a take-off point. It’s more interesting to take an established idea in a new creative direction.”

2. “Return On Investment”

Trying to predict a return on investment (ROI) can be smart business, but when it’s tied to innovation, there’s no way of knowing what it will be. “Nine months in, the founders of Google tried to sell Google to Yahoo for a million dollars,” says Johansson. “Yahoo ran their numbers and determined it wasn’t worth it. Neither the founders nor the leading search engine of the time had a clue of Google’s ROI. You can’t bring up ROI when an idea is five minutes old.”

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Discussing ROI is a weapon that shuts down innovation, says Johansson. “It’s not an enhancer to bring forward good ideas,” he says. “In fact, it serves the opposite function. If you’re worried about money, a more interesting phrase is, ‘If this fails, what is the cost and are we okay if it doesn’t work out?'”

3. “When I Worked For . . . “

Another way to shut down ideas is trying to tie your past experience when discussing something new. “Someone might say, ‘When I worked at Company XYZ, we tried that and it didn’t work,'” says Johansson.

Innovation is about the unknown, and trying to compare it to a past experience will constrict the conversation. “What this phrase is really about is establishing expertise,” says Johansson. “It’s saying, ‘I know what I’m talking about because I worked at XYZ company years back.’ It’s possible that company isn’t even doing it that way any more. To encourage innovation, don’t get stuck in the past.”

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