Idea killers: ways to stop ideas

In the creative thinking course I taught at the University of Washington, we spent time listing idea killers, statements often heard in organizations that prevent change. Chapter 4 of The Myths of Innovation explores them in detail since it’s essential any creative person familiarize themselves with these phrases and learn countermeasures to overcome them.

If you work with ideas, you will hear these phrases often in your life. Often they contain no logic, but unless someone challenges them they are used to end creative conversations.

For example, a statement like “we don’t do that here” presumes that there is a good reason it’s not done. But is there? Maybe someone bad at their job forgot to do it when the organization started? Or perhaps the fact that it’s not done is hurting the company.  The fact that something is or is not done says nothing about it’s value. You might as well say “the sky is blue” or “squares have angles”. They are merely observations.

But if a statement like “we don’t do that here” is said by a powerful person, it’s politically hard to challenge them about why this might be, or that it’s a problem. Progress is often based on doing something that has never been done in that organization before. But a leader’s pride in what might be a failed notion of tradition inhibits the examination of the tradition’s positive/negative values.

“We tried that already” presumes that the reason the attempt failed was because of the idea, and not the many other factors that might explain the failure. It could have been that the least competent people worked on the project, or that it was underfunded. The right question to ask in response is “Yes, but why did it not work before? What has changed now that might lead to a better outcome if we try again?” Unlike the idea killer, these questions lead to thinking, rather than preventing it from happening.

The basic method for defeating idea killers is to prepare, in advance, your responses to them. Convert any idea killer you hear into a question that examines the merit of the idea, rather than allowing the statement to presume there isn’t any. You can probably measure the open mindedness of a culture by how often idea killers are heard, and how well practiced people are in overcoming them.

Of course opportunity cost means that many ideas will need to be rejected to make any one idea possible. But when there is zero time allowed to consider new proposals, no new ideas are likely getting the support they need.

Idea Killers

  • We don’t do that here
  • That’s not the way we work
  • We tried that already
  • We don’t have time
  • That can’t work here / now / for this client
  • It’s not in our budget
  • Not an interesting problem
  • We don’t have time
  • Execs will never go for it
  • Out of scope
  • It’s too ambitious (“blue sky”)
  • It’s not ambitious enough
  • It won’t make enough money
  • It’s too hard to build
  • That isn’t what people want
  • Sarcastic / Snarky
    • What are you on?
    • Can we get someone with a brain in here?
    • Would you like a pony?
    • We will actively work against you
    • (Laughter)
    • (Silence)
    • This train is on fire

What are others you’ve heard? (Also see Idea Helpers, a positive spin on the same theme)


107 Responses to “Idea killers: ways to stop ideas”



  2. ren

    Not realistic.
    Too much psychology.
    Too little psychology.
    We need to think constructively!
    Stop talking about the Sopranos! :)

  3. Joen

    In a past life I heard a frightening amount of these. But also, if I might augment your list, the notorious “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. On second thought, that credo might be a talking point in its own right.



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