Innovation is widely perceived as one of the most powerful tools for business survival and growth in a fast-changing world, so it makes sense that everyone, no matter what industry or field, is eager to jump on the innovation bandwagon. Most companies, however, still struggle to jump start innovative thinking because they overlook the small details embedded within an organization’s culture: the everyday, ritualistic occurrences that subliminally signal to employees that they shouldn’t spend time exploring a new idea, let alone bring it up to the rest of their team. The most pervasive of these subliminal signals are the words that a company allows in its everyday vocabulary, which may at first seem harmless, but in reality could be stifling innovation potential.
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As a starting point, this list offers some insights on words that have no purpose in an innovative workplace, yet are heard in almost every workspace.
There is something to be said about not reinventing the wheel. However, more often than not, a “best practice” is a shortcut solution to a problem that ends up diminishing creative thinking. Most executives develop a strong appetite for the use of best practices, as it allows them to reduce the cognitive stress of developing new solutions to everyday issues. The problem with this phrase is that it implies that what worked for one problem works for another, albeit with minor tweaks. When building an innovative culture, it is critical to understand the danger of overusing common approaches to problem solving, and to instead, cultivate an environment where employees are encouraged to think about multiple approaches to challenges, and how to create something unlike anything else seen on the market today.
In my book, The Click Moment, I point to a well-known fiction author who ultimately succeeded in her writings because she didn’t follow the “best practices” commonly used for writing, or even the vampire genre as a whole. Instead, she eschewed what the experts — from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice — say about vampires, and ended up creating one of the best selling series of all time: Twilight.
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“Return on investment,” or ROI, is among the most commonly used phrases in business today. It’s also one of the biggest inhibitors of innovation. Although there is a place for ROI in business, it’s not at the early stages of an idea or initiative. Yet, ROI is often used to stage gate new ideas and, inadvertently, kill high potential ones. This tendency suggests that business leaders are impatient to see how an idea plays out by immediately tagging a metric to the thought’s perceived value.
To illustrate an example of how ROI can fail us, let’s take a look at Google. About a year or so into the business, the founders wanted to get back to their doctoral program at Stanford, so they tried to sell Google to Yahoo for $1 million. Yahoo ran the numbers and ended up rejecting the offer, stating that the cost was too high. While Yahoo’s estimated ROI missed big time, we have to also look at the founders who missed the mark as well. You see, they initially valued Google at $1 million, which has since evolved into one of top corporations in the race to become the first $1-trillion company.
Everyone who has conducted a ROI analysis to justify spending on a project knows that it signifies a theoretical number that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the value. A better metric to look at is what Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Saras D. Sarasvathy, calls the “affordable loss principle.” Sarasvathy suggests that businesses should redirect their focus from maximizing return, to placing bets that they can afford to lose without having a negative impact. An organizational culture that understands and fosters this principle has a better chance of developing breakthrough ideas, as it allows them to put a pulse on potential risk, while simultaneously providing the space to experiment with new solutions.
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Strategy in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, problems emerge when a strategy, which is based on months of research, model development and market analysis, becomes inflexible to the realities of the world we currently live in. Today’s great plan on paper may no longer be relevant by the time it’s put into action. Business leaders’ over-reliance on inflexible strategies can help us understand why the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading U.S. companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century — from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Yale University Professor Richard Foster.
Strategy only makes sense when the rules of the game remain unchanged. But, that is no longer the case today. Competitors can come from anywhere, not just the usual suspects — just ask Nokia or the hotel and taxi industries, whose worlds have shifted dramatically in just the last few years. Although strategy can mobilize a team to act on new ideas, innovation really comes from having a clear vision of what you want to achieve, and executing on that vision through a lens that is not afraid of failure or steadfast on one pathway as a means to success.
The phrase “words will never hurt me” doesn’t always apply when trying to ignite innovation, especially in the business world. By avoiding these all-too-common phrases, companies will encourage an organizational culture that fosters innovation and creative thinking. The end result will be a more open, collaborative and ultimately innovative organization that is better position for generating ideas, products and/or services that the world has never seen before.
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