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”

  1. Scott Adams

    I don’t mean to shoot that down but…

  2. Andreas Scherer

    That OO stuff sure is very nice, but … we don’t really want to cripply our engineers’ creativity by introducing such restrictive frameworks.

  3. Jordan Torjussen

    That’s great, but what really needs to get done around here is…

    Vaguely condescending or startled smile.

    I’ll look into it/take it up with…

    But that’s not even really a problem any more.

    But that wouldn’t do anybody any good for thirty years and in the meantime… (Think alternative fuels, which by that estimation – had the push to develop them not been defunded and un-mandated by the Reagan administration – would be kicking in just about now.)

  4. Chris Harbert

    Customers won’t like that (without asking customers).

    That’s too expensive (without doing a cost benefit analysis).

    That’s a dog that won’t hunt (yeah, I’ve actually heard this one).

    We can’t use open source (when plenty of legitimate companies do).

    That’s not what we do here (yeah, but why not?).

    We’re already doing something else.

    We’re not like the people who do that (without additional explaination).

    We never told anyone we were going to do that.

  5. Danielle Clark

    This is the way it’s always been (the way you are trying to change).

    That just won’t work in the “real world”.

  6. Carlos Torres

    there isn’t enough user base yet to undergo the complexity of integrating these apps, we can move data manually for now…

    we dont have time to re-write this code in OO…(eventually demand made code re-use VERY appealing :p )

    why fix something thats not broken yet?

  7. Mark Prins

    (regarding more ‘thinking’ before ‘doing’)
    – It all sounds okay, but we allways did it this way, so we will continue doing that

    (again regarding the planning/vision/requirements process)
    – If you want it, prepare/do it in your own time I dont want you to do it during working hours…

    (after working in my own hours and moved a lot of work and, now on a bit of a harsh tone, explaining what the use is)
    – I dont like your tone in of all this..

    (on wanting to write things down for future reference)
    – Write things down? I know everything! If you dont know it anymore, ask me!

    (One I heard SO many times that, when it was used once more it just drove all motivation out of me)
    – You can start it as a pet project!

    – Do it in your spare time, if it is succesfull we maybe use it

    – No, thats not a good idea. You dont know what I want.

  8. Krishna

    Here’re some more:

    “But our experience with (so and so) tells us that this won’t work”

    “That’s not important! What matters is…”

    “Why don’t we discuss what you’re suggesting after this meeting?”

    “The top management will never go for it!” (yeah, sure, you know what the top management wants!)

    “But you know, the government/bureaucracy/… is just not used to doing things like that..”

    “We can never sell this idea to the client” (but give it a try?)

    And then there are those non-verbal cues, gestures, facial expressions, exchange of glances, negative body language and all other ways to kill creative ideas!

  9. Michael Wagner

    A great list and helpful to read everyone’s experience with idea killers.

    Have you ever read Peter Block’s book, “The Answer to How is Yes”?

    It deals with pragmatisms effect on shutting down good ideas.

    Challenging read but worth it.

    Thanks for kicking off a great list — in some odd way I have fount it therapeutics to read, grin.

  10. Jonah C

    “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

  11. Mike-2

    “Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”

  12. Paul

    “Before we get to this item, I think it speaks to a larger conceptual issue…”

  13. owenpug

    “you think too much.”

    “why do all that? all i asked for was ___.”

  14. Roddy

    What? Are you like 12?

    Hmmm. Interesting. Say, does this look nice on me?

  15. Marieke Hensel

    Me: So what about …

    Manager: Sorry, we need something edgy.

    Me: Hmm… so what about….

    Manager: Nope… still not edgy enough.

    Me: And if we try to …

    Manager: … No… I guess it won’t come up now, let’s forget about it.

  16. A new techy girl

    One’s I have wanted to use include

    That solution indicates you didn’t really understand the problem.

    Um, but really, that just wont work (and really it wouldn’t – just couldn’t be done and he thought it was simple and it would have required at least a year of work for a very very small return).

    Um, because that would be illegal.

    But why would we want to do that

  17. David

    That will never pass audit!


    “What you got there is a solution looking for a problem.”

    Had to use it yesterday too.

  19. cat

    Dunno, I’ll need to discuss this with my wife first …

  20. Brad Knowles

    We had this problem when I worked at AOL, and every six months we’d get new VPs in the company who all thought that they had the perfect solution for spam — just don’t accept anything that claims to come from an address if it’s not actually coming from our machines.

    Of course, they didn’t understand the concept of mailing lists, or people legitimately sending e-mail from a different system than the one where they’d be receiving responses — think greeting cards, automated announcements from shopping sites, etc….

    Unfortunately, with the advent of SPF, it’s clear that people still haven’t learned this lesson.

    Anyway, the answer is:

    Six months ago we looked at this problem once again. Here’s the boatload of research that we did the first time we looked at this problem three years ago. Please go away and study it and make sure you fully understand everything in the file, before you come back to us and try to explain how your solution is different from the same thing that we keep hearing every six months.

  21. Patrick Andrews

    I had a research supervisor who said that Science is full of people who act as fire extinguishers for new ideas. His job he said was to spread intellectual pyromania. Naturally, he stopped getting any grant money.

  22. Ian

    “There you go making too much sense again…”

    Routinely heard when I was working in tech in a large bureaucratic organization. They usually opted to do things that made little sense, cost much more, and never got completed before the next round of executive brainstorming sent them off on some other equally ill-fated course.

  23. Sean

    “Oh, yeah, I was going to do that once upon a time.”
    (implying greater wisdom, that the idea’s not all that special and that it’s not worth doing for some reason)

    “Don’t you have enough to do?”

    “Great! Go and do it. Let us know how you get on.”
    (when it’s obvious that without the speaker’s support, it won’t happen).

  24. Mike

    “Don’t worry about that – we have smart people working on it”

    “You don’t understand our business model….”

  25. Todd Derscheid

    Let the IT people handle that.

    You shouldn’t touch those – it’s not our department.

    We have to be fair to everyone.

    That sounds like a good idea! If you can do it in-house, we’ll give you a one-time cash bonus of $500 (the outsourcing budget for the project was over $100K.)

    That’s a good seminar. Rather than sending everyone, we’ll send our lead trainer, she can re-write all the materials to fit our approach. That’s what Train-The-Trainer is all about!

    This is some kind of hacker thing, right?

    Go ahead and submit it as a change request, outlining the full impact, so we can add it to the design board.

    This sounds like more work for us on our end.

    If we do it for one person, we’ll have to do it for all of them.

    We need to present a united front – so don’t mention this to anyone.

  26. Sanandan

    1. There’s no time for it !!!
    2. Its time we come up with better ideas
    3. Too many monkeys on our shoulder ( it involves a lot of work from our side)

  27. Jason Luedeke

    MARC GEAR – “we can put that in version 2” HAHAHAHAH i hear that about everyday.

  28. Josh

    “Is that how Microsoft would do it?”

  29. Oz

    from seth godin:

    “That will never work.”
    “… That said, the labor laws make it difficult for us to do a lot of the suggestions [you] put out. And we do live in a lawsuit oriented society.””
    “Can you show me some research that demonstrates that this will work?”
    “Well, if you had some real-world experience, then you would understand.”
    “I don’t think our customers will go for that, and without them we’d never be able to afford to try this.”
    “It’s fantastic, but the salesforce won’t like it.”
    “The salesforce is willing to give it a try, but [major retailer] won’t stock it.”
    “There are government regulations and this won’t be permitted.”
    “Well, this might work for other people, but I think we’ll stick with what we’ve got.”
    “We’ll let someone else prove it works… it won’t take long to catch up.”
    “Our team doesn’t have the technical chops to do this.”
    “Maybe in the next budget cycle.”
    “We need to finish this initiative first.”
    “It’s been done before.”
    “It’s never been done before.”
    “We’ll get back to you on this.”
    “We’re already doing it.”

  30. one

    ..can you bring me the ketchup? haha

  31. joe

    “…It’s actually not that simple.”

    [the most common condescension in defense of competency, if you were to see as clearly as me…]

    ” …i don’t know too much about X, but I think…”

    [exercising brute power/rank, ignorance as virtue]

    and for fun you can answer one with the other.

  32. Beth

    This is what I use all the time…..

  33. Beth

    I forgot about this…….

    (with an amused chuckle)….Ok….Yeah…But really….?(abruptly stop chuckle and look real serious.

  34. Abha

    well…whose side are you on anyways? This is not the way to approach it!

    …It just does not click ! something is missing here…pl re-work

    …I dont think u got the brief right…I think you need to come back for a re-briefing

    ….you are the expert on this…but somehow it does not seem right !

  35. Mike

    When requesting a software feature: “That feature already exists, it’s in the XXX module.”

    So I try that module, find out it does something sort of close, but not what I really needed (and asked for in the feature request), and besides that, I discover the module has a major bug in it. So I file a bug report, explaining how the module isn’t working the way it should AND noting the bug.

    The response I get: “Changed to a feature request. If there’s a bug in here somewhere, please file it in another bug report.” (The bug was clearly noted).

    This from a company that said they want people to file bug reports because the software is still a beta version and they want to fix the bugs before the final release! Yeah, SURE they do…

    (By the way, classifying something as a “feature request” is their way of saying that the idea/bug report will be in a black hole somewhere for at least the next six months, then they MIGHT consider it or they might just dismiss it out of hand, depending on who reads it and how they’re feeling that day).

  36. Lintball

    “Let’s take that offline” (Meaning we will MAYBE discuss this privately where I can shoot you down without anyone else’s opinion interfering with my own opinion or anyone else hearing your idea.)
    “I don’t have the bandwidth for this”
    (This doesn’t jibe with my pre-ordained agenda.)
    “Let’s handle the low hanging fruit” (wow do I hate that expression!) meaning let’s do some quick fixes, but let the source of the problem continue)
    I suppose the intention of all these statements would be useful if they were used responsibly, but so often they are used to manipulate perception. One of the problems with jargon and business speak is that reasonable statements are commandered to avoid, or give spin.
    My most hated term is “Pro-active”. I have been both pooched for being “Pro-active” and chastised for being “not Pro-active” in the same meeting.
    We are all constantly solving problems, pro-actively, re-actively, pre-actively. That’s what we do. Political, power-seeking manager types just want to look good at the Boardroom meetings-don’t give a shit about actual function/working process. (OK I’ll call my shrink now)

  37. Christina Worsing

    “Yeah that’s great, but this has got to be done by next week”

    “If we had more time, I’d say go for it.”

    One of my patronizing favorites….
    “Did you read that in a book or something?” followed by “I’m kidding.”

  38. HeartBurn Kid

    “Corporate won’t support it.”

    I hear that one a lot. :)

  39. leMel

    “There’s no statistical correlation between [your idea] and sales.” – used to argue against anything at all this person didn’t want to do/see, but never required to be demonstrated for their own choices.

    Another person:
    Me: [New, different idea]
    Them: “This is the first I’m hearing this.” – The implication: only present to me ideas that I’ve heard of before – if I haven’t, you are wrong.

    Same person:
    Me: “I’d like to approach it this way.”
    Them: “That’s not where we netted out.” – Implication: I already discussed it with someone more important than you – never mind who – and they pre-emptively said no to any idea you have today.

    Ugh. Just typing that made me throw up a little.

  40. Gordon Milne

    What about the concept that not all ideas are worth living for longer than the 5 seconds they took to escaper the suggesters mouth?

    If you want to brainstorm, fine. Make the rule that you can only suggest ideas during the brainstorming time and that any kind of criticism is not allowed.

    But when you get to the critical part, at least have the balls to acknowledge that not all ideas are great, and that a large number of them can be thrown out very early on. Perhaps as early as the first 15 minutes after the brainstorming cycle is over.

    I am not talking about killing ideas dead for the sake, or fun, of it. I am talking about realising that many ideas/suggestions are not all that great. We aren’t here for a certificate of attendance, we are here (for the most part) to succeed.

  41. Graefey

    My favorites from the he front lines are (and these are actual quotes):

    “My wife won’t like that color.”

    “It’s really cute that you think that would work (followed by pat on the head).”

    “Wow, that would be cool, but Marketing says we need to produce this for 1/10th that cost.”

  42. seki

    Could somebody tell me the meaning of “Would you like a pony?”

  43. Scott (admin)

    Seki: ‘I want a pony’ is a classic childhood wish. So to say ‘would you like a pony’ means that the idea is wishful or childish.

  44. Lance Morgan

    Really harsh sarcasm is probably the worst, and I usually deal with a lot of it.

    “Why don’t you just ask customers to buy our competitor’s product?”

    “That is a common sense approach that has no use in a government agency.”

    [second statement said only half sarcastically]

    “[X] is a great idea, but [y] is not your area of expertise. I am sure that someone has already thought of that and if it worked they would have implemented it”

  45. Ken Gransbury

    “Well burn that bridge when we come to it!”

    (Mixed metaphor humour at your idea’s expense….. Mixed metaphors are two sayings mixed into one. Like: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” and “Let’s not burn our bridges” – two good metaphors made into a bad one.. like lets burn the idea and the bridge!)

  46. mirathi

    the following phrase is often mumbled during staff meetings:

    “…monkeys fucking a football.”


    just imagine monkeys fucking a football when a project is trying to get done. got that picture in your head?

  47. Jennie Zehmer

    I am curious about phrases that grow ideas. . . Anybody willing to take that on?

  48. Tungsten

    “One of our competitors did something like that once”

  49. chinmay

    sounds fine, but it’ll take too much time…

  50. revy

    “yes…but where is the ROI?”

    “You’re stupid”

    “Can we bring this to critical mass?”

  51. EG

    “Get with a black belt and do a six sigma project on that…”

  52. stampy

    “Get over yourself.”

  53. mary js

    “this is the sort of thing you shouldn’t waste your time with”

  54. Me

    “Great idea, sadly this is not he right client for it.”
    The right client never appears…

  55. Maria

    In here, we’re thinking outside of the box.

    You need to eat a lot of bread (before you suggest something decent). [meaning, I have a lot to learn yet]

  56. Toggy

    Let’s sit on it for the time being.



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