My dad was an English professor. I was taught from an early age the importance of words. Words matter. Words have influence and impact. Words bring clarity and insights. Words tell stories.

Words matter even more in times of uncertainty. The words we use to describe the environment can have a big impact on the results we get. The language we use can open up discoveries or cut them down before they can take off.

Through the years I’ve seen where the language used can become a make-or-break element to whether innovation flourishes or wilts on the vine.

I had the great pleasure to work with Jack Elkins, founder of Sidekick Innovation, when he was the director of innovation for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Jack was instrumental in developing the Magic’s innovation lab. He shared my passion for language and its importance in building up an individual and organization’s innovation muscle.

Jack spoke at our Inside Outside Innovation Summit in 2018 about how the Magic used language at the lab as a key way to teach and sustain innovation within the lab. Here are a few of the phrases, words, and questions they highlighted in the lab:

  • “We can if…” This phrase helps people look for answers and possibilities before talking about barriers and inhibitors.
  • Substitute “but” for “and.” An old improv tool is to expand the scene and its opportunities by using “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” language. This simple substitution opens doors rather than closing them.
  • How fascinating! How cool!” A great phrase to help people suspend or defer judgement during moments of uncertainty, mistakes, or fear. The phrase also enables folks to praise action over highlighting mistakes.
  • “Tell me more! What else? Why?” These words foster the seeking of deeper understanding and encourage learning.
  • “That makes me think of…” This phrase helps build off other experiences and enables new connections to be explored.
  • “We don’t know how to do it – yet!” Focuses the conversation from the place of a growth mindset over fixed mindset.
  • “How might we?” Or “In what ways might we accomplish X, despite Y?” This phrase helps teams start with more divergent thinking, opening up more possibilities. It also calls out the assumed constraints that need to be explored further.
  • “What I like about that…” This is a positive way to start an evaluation or judgment without losing creative momentum.
  • “I’d like to propose and experiment.” By framing a project or action as an experiment, it lowers the perceived risks and fears and gives permission to explore for unknown actions. It also serves as a way to define the next steps or actions to continue learning.
  • “Thank you.” One of the most overlooked phrases during times of stress and uncertainty is saying thank you. Having a grateful attitude and respect for the process and people enables better feedback, integration, and collaboration.

I’ve found that incorporating these phases and similar language has led to better group dynamics and a more consistent focus on the positive aspects of innovation culture.

Check out more of Brian’s work and see what new ideas we’re building at Nelnet Innovation Studio.