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. HeartBurn Kid

    “Corporate won’t support it.”

    I hear that one a lot. :)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. seki

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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”

  8. 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!)

  9. 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?

  10. Jennie Zehmer

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

  11. Tungsten

    “One of our competitors did something like that once”

  12. chinmay

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

  13. revy

    “yes…but where is the ROI?”

    “You’re stupid”

    “Can we bring this to critical mass?”

  14. EG

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

  15. stampy

    “Get over yourself.”

  16. mary js

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

  17. Me

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

  18. 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]

  19. Toggy

    Let’s sit on it for the time being.

  20. Neil O'Connell

    Who are you again? And why are you dressed like that?

  21. reid

    I heard these from my former CIO in my exit interview:

    “You’re too young to have any good ideas.”

    “You just don’t understand. IT has always been done this way, and it always will. There is no better way.”

    …from what I heard that CIO was unemployed for quite some time after he was laid off. :)

  22. Caryn Rose

    “That’s not your job.”

  23. wael

    it will never work

    it is not your bussines

    i never heared about that before

    you could not manage it

    do not be so sure about it

  24. phil

    the one I use the most would be:

    “Yeah… well… no.”


  25. Mark Long

    let’s put together a committee.

    (my apologies if this one has shown up already.)

  26. Manny Bonet

    Here are two:

    Real people have do this …

    People will never understand that …

    and finally related to one of your other blogs I’m sure you will apreciate this.

    That is just too complex …

  27. Anete Benedict

    It is very interesting for me to read this article. Thanks the author for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

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  28. Pete

    What we really need to do is…


    We did something like that last time!

    Good idea, but we need to talk to x about it and we will get back to you

    Your not a designer.

    Mail it directly to me and we can talk about it further once I’ve had time to go through it

    Yeah, but someone has to pay for it.

  29. Jess Weiss

    Great post, and here are a few I’ve heard recently:

    – Not within our purview / title / mission
    – That’s someone else’s job
    – We don’t want to step on x’s toes
    – We’re too resource constrained for such an ambitious project.



  1. […] Michael Wade über What Senior Management Really Means, hat mich sofort an diese beiden Artikel von Scott Berkun und Seth Godin erinnert: Idea killers: ways to stop ideas und Top ways to defend the status quo. Natürlich sind Killersätze wie die folgenden nicht nur dem Senior Management überlassen, sondern jeder Projektteilnehmer kann hier “konstruktiv” Projekte töten. “That will never work.” “It’s been done before.” “It’s never been done before.” “We’ll get back to you on this.” “We’re already doing it.” […]

  2. […] Replying to a way old post here, but it is chock-full of real life idea-stoppers, and you are encouraged to add your own. Here are some I have encountered: Yeah, awesome! I love how you come up with new ideas all the time! Where do you get it all from? I’ll see what I can get the boss to sign up on and we’ll get right to it! […]

  3. […] » Idea killers: ways to stop ideas Last week in the creative thinking course I’m teaching at UW, we spent time listing idea killers. Statements we’ve heard, or used, that stop ideas in their […]

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