Subtract, Don’t Add, To Provoke Innovation

4 minute read

Last week, the VP of Engineering in a large company was aggravated with the slow pace in his engineering organizations’ implementation of their innovation training. Over the last year and a half, they had invested in Innovation Engineering training and he was seeing little of their learning come through in their actual day-to-day work and performance results. Their communication and interactions were showing the same old narrow thinking and outdated (5 Why) problem-solving.

Two-day, two-week, or two-month-long training events that add tools to our tool belts are awesome. The problem is that the vast majority of the time, we fail in actually changing our thinking and practicing something different.

Instead of adding more tools, let’s subtract.

You will be astonished to see how eliminating words from your vocabulary dramatically elevates your possibility thinking and innovation.

One of our most powerful tools for accessing and utilizing our creativity is our language. If you’re like most people, you’re ineffective with your language because you’re stuck in communication loops. You’re on Autopilot and you might be surprised how predictable, limited, and repetitive your language is.

Our language shapes our thinking and our performance in all situations. And, instead of adding specific words (tools) to your communication, let’s subtract.

Think of it as a detox.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for my current or former clients, and they’ll be quick to say how difficult it actually is to remove words from their vocabulary. While I said this was a simpler method, it’s quite challenging because it requires discipline to stop, be present, think and communicate on purpose.

First set of Illegal Words© to remove: Either / Or

Anytime you hear yourself or a colleague use the word “or” when you are developing solutions, it’s an indicator of “Either this or that” thinking. This habit seriously hamstrings your players. When we continue to think and speak “Either, or” we constrain our ideas down to only two. Even worse, we tend to think we must decide on one of the two. So, not only are we creating unnecessary conflict, we’re killing our decisiveness. (That’s a whole other category to cover.)

Second set of Illegal Words to remove: Right / Wrong

Here’s where I get a lot of resistance with my leaders–especially my engineers and scientists who think:

a.) everything’s just an equation that’s “either right or wrong”, and

b.) they’re always “right” and everyone else is “wrong”! 

Where do you see this creates a problem with innovation and creativity?

Geez, where do we start?!

Now that you’re a leader in your organization, you’re not the one buried in calculations all day. Your primary responsibility is to get the best performance from the people around you. That includes their best thinking, their courageous ownership and initiative, their open collaboration with others.

Cultivating a culture of right and wrong kills Safety.

Lack of Safety means your team will not take healthy risks. They will hold back and stay under the radar. Innovation inoculation.

Right/wrong are also fantastic ways to polarize people.

When I’m putting my mental, emotional, and physical energy into proving I’m right, what am I saying to others? And, how often do you like people telling you you’re wrong? Yep, thought so.

Remove these two words from your language, and your team’s language, and watch just how much they begin to open up and expand their thinking!

Start there. Subtract four words and see what you end up with.

[NOTE: The Illegal Words are a fundamental part of our core component called Activating Language, and in this simple blog post, we’re only talking about a small fraction in regards to innovation and creativity.]