How the Language of Innovation affects how we innovate together. (The Creativity Suite. Episode 5.)

Interview with Kelly Ford, Former Innovation Director, Worldwide Innovation Team at Pfizer.

Here is an interesting thought: Could the words we use to speak with each other affect how much we innovate?

Pfizer thinks so and they have spent energy and resource on getting their 67,000 employees around the world to understand how behaviors drive innovation.

The word “behavior” means “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.”

It is that last part – “especially towards others” – I find so interesting when I talk to Kelly Ford, Former Innovation Director, Worldwide Innovation Team at Pfizer. She tells me how Pfizer has worked on increasing the awareness of how words between people can either kill or nurture creativity.

Kelly explains to me how her team has helped Pfizer employees see how, what they call, “Greenhousing”, can improve the likelihood of an idea becoming a reality. Greenhousing is a way of building solutions together and by being conscious about how we share and interact with colleagues who present their ideas. It’s about things like:

– Suspending judgment until the whole idea has been presented and has had the chance to be nurtured by others – to give the person a chance to explain the idea and its merits and allow it to grow.

– Encourage people to use constructive language when they share an idea, such as “How can we make this idea work?” or “Can you help me build this idea further?” – to encourage people to look for the good, not the bad, in an idea when it is shared.

– Signaling – a way of communicating to others that you are looking for ideas from them too.

 “Innovation is a collaborative thing, especially in our industry where the success of an idea will never be down to just one or two people. If we work on getting people to be better at working together to make the best ideas happen then more innovation will succeed.”, says Kelly.

The problem is that most people have not been taught how to encourage creativity in others. Kelly Ford: “It’s not that people consciously go around thinking “I am going to kill other people’s ideas” but things like unconscious bias and a “knowers mindset” can get in the way”. “Knowers mindset” is when your expertise and experience work as blinders stopping you from seeing what could be possible. Experience and expertise are wonderful things, but not when they work against our ability to see problems differently and allow our creativity to innovate new novel solutions.

By teaching language techniques and behaviors to encourage positive collaboration around ideas, Pfizer is decreasing the chance of good ideas being killed by unfortunate human behavior.

Kelly said to me: “No-one goes around thinking “I am going to kill everything you say, but people are often too quick to jump to assumptions.”

“Jump to assumptions” – what a brilliant way to describe our tendency as humans to want to kill an idea too early.

The definition of an assumption is “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” And many people will jump to assumptions about an idea – especially about why an idea will not work (!) – based not on the merit of the idea, but only on their own assumptions of an idea they have just heard.

At Pfizer, Kelly and the team created exercises to show how jumping to assumptions and allowing our unconscious bias to take over, means we never really allow ourselves to fully understand the ideas of others which inhibits our ability to nurture them collaboratively. One way they have done it is to have a person describe an idea – something fun like a new baby hair washing device that entertains the child and keeps the water out of their eyes – and then have different groups try to re-create the innovation in a drawing or a model, based on what was described to them. At the end of the exercise a picture or model of the new innovation is shared and inevitably, all the groups have built something different based on their own perceptions of the idea, even though the description was the same … We are just not good at understanding other people’s ideas.

But imagine if we got better at it.

Pfizer is a research-based global pharmaceutical company that strives to set the standard for quality, safety, and value in the discovery, development, and manufacture of medicines and vaccines that have the potential to save lives, prevent illness and improve health and wellbeing. With the purpose of making breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, an innovation culture is critical and any increase in employee ability to understand each other’s ideas and collaborate effectively is very valuable.

So I asked for an example of how these different techniques can be used, and Kelly gave me what I found to be a perfect example:

She told me a story about how she was designing an innovation event where they wanted to include a crowdsourcing element prior to the conference. With pharma companies working within a highly regulated environment Kelly had to work alongside compliance colleagues for approval on using the crowdsourcing element to ensure everything was correct in line with policies and procedures. So when Kelly shared the idea and started her presentation she used “the Language of Innovation” to signal that she wanted their input and support to help make the idea a success. She requested that the group listen to the whole presentation before raising their concerns and then concluded by inviting the audience to discuss “how can we make this work together?”. By using collaborative language she signaled that she wanted the group to help find a way to make crowdsourcing work and invited them to come with their own ideas for how to make it work, making them feel part of the innovation process. This avoided a barrage of reasons why it couldn’t work and prevented the idea from being killed straight away, whilst still delivering the solution in a complaint and ethical way. It worked and the crowdsourcing project was quickly approved. A great example of how conscious language can help an idea be more easily accepted.

Kelly ended our interview with the words: “We should never kill an idea before we fully understand what it is, and way too often we do not even give the other person the chance to describe it before we set out to kill it. That is a shame.”

That’s what it is. A shame.

And it does not have to be that way. So learn from Pfizer and teach the Language of Innovation to make your employees better at sharing, receiving, evaluating and developing ideas together.




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