The Language of Innovation

Innovation is the currency of today’s world.  Companies want to come up with the next thing, the next idea, the next product.  In a desperate attempt to seed innovation, companies implement elaborate processes and methodologies and fund big brainstorming sessions.  Often these improvements don’t improve innovation much if at all. Why is this? Many experts will tell you that it’s culture, and when they say ‘culture’, it sounds big and expensive.  What it really is, is simply language.  Innovative companies have mastered the Language of Innovation.

Here are some simple language shifts that can move your company from floundering to flourishing.


Yes, And.  For years consultants have been recommending that people replace “But” with “Yes And.”  It’s become a joke in the workplace, where people simply replace the word “but” with “and”, but they still mean “but”.  For example “Yes, and that will never work!” This a great example of following the rule but not the intent.

If you follow the intent of replacing “but” with “yes, and” you would look for ways to build on someone’s idea instead of shutting it down.  “But” shuts down the idea, and even if it’s intended as a tweak, the person with the idea is likely to stop contributing. Consider the scenario when someone makes a suggestion and a colleague says “But we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.”  That totally shuts down the conversation, leaving no room for new ideas.

“Yes, And” does two things.  First, it acknowledges the other person’s idea by saying “yes”.  Second, it prompts you to find a way to build on what they have presented by saying “and”.  Consider the prior example, someone makes a suggestion and a colleague responds “Yes, and, we can make sure we let people know in advance so we don’t have a repeat of last time.”  The “Yes, And” encourages them to build on the idea, and they overcome their own objection.

Don’t pin the details on the donkey.  One of the quickest ways to shut down an innovative idea is by nailing the ideator on the details.  Maybe you can remember a time when someone attempts to spark innovation and some idea killer in the group says “Well tell us how that’s going to work then?”  I’ve seen it even with simple things like “hey what if we turned our user manual into a comic book?” And the idea killer comes in and says skeptically “How do you propose that going to work?” or “How much will that cost?” The idea proceeds to live or die based on how well the ideator can spin up details on the fly.  

The team needs to practice turning this "idea killing language" into "ideation language".  Instead of pinning the details on the ideator, the whole team takes responsibility for fleshing it out.  For example, someone might say “yes and we could open it up to the staff to see if anyone can draw!” The team also needs to learn how to identify and turn an idea killer.  The team needs to be able to respond to “How do you propose we…” with something like “We’re all a team here, what ideas do you have?” Letting someone get away with pinning the details on the ideator will erode the team’s ability to be innovative.

Silence is not agreement, and it’s not participation.  I once sat in a brainstorming meeting with someone who didn’t contribute at all.  As we were walking out of the room, I asked him what he thought and he said: “I’m not sure, I’m going to wait and see how it all pans out before I decide if I’m in support.”  Was he kidding? We invited him to co-create a solution that would work, but instead, he was going to sit silent and then judge the outcome. Explicit participation is important.  If you’re in the room, you’re part of it.

Here are some language shifts to get you started:

How has language affected your team's ability to innovate?  Let us know!