The Power to Stop Innovation

As part of the research behind The Myths of Innovation, I read a tall stack of books with the word creativity or innovation in the title. Many had the same theme: they make incredible promises. They often say that with just a few simple steps or “secrets”, your competitors will stumble in your wake. Profits and promotions will be your dominion. And if the promises weren’t grand enough, many of these books presume that you have enough power in your organization to make anything you desire happen.

But an important question that’s easily overlooked is: Who has the power to stop progress in your organization?

Before you worry about pitching ideas or leading change, it’s worth considering who the powerful enemies of your, or anyone’s, good idea are. Most books, despite their promises, don’t help much with powerful coworkers who are in love with the status quo. Unless the books are slim enough to fling across the conference table and heavy enough to knock our their targets them out when they strike.

People in power stop progress because they:

  1. Are scared. They’re struggling to lead right now, without introducing more change.
  2. Don’t understand the new idea.
  3. Understand the idea, but see it as mere change, not progress.
  4. Are afraid of the changes the idea represents.
  5. Think the idea conflicts with their organization’s existing goals (which they don’t want to change).
  6. Are generally risk-phobic. They reject most ideas regardless of merit.
  7. Fear they’ll lose control over their organization. Or their empire will shrink in prestige.
  8. They don’t know how to convert the idea into profit, or advantage.
  9. Don’t see how it can help them get promoted.
  10. See the idea as creating more work for them.

Of course sometimes rejecting an idea is a wise move. Change isn’t always progress. But as this lists suggests, there are many strong and private reasons someone in power will reject ideas for reasons that have little to do with the merit of the idea itself. If you want to work with ideas, you need to understand the true landscape of power. And adjust the approach you take for getting support for the ideas on your mind.

[revised 12-7-15]

25 Responses to “The Power to Stop Innovation”

  1. Aloys Hosman

    11. require years of perfecting and then notice the competition has beat them to it
    12. constant “reporting back” takes out the fun and inserts the fear of failure

    Great list!

  2. Mike

    I’ve come to learn this explanation is true from time to time:

    People in higher positions of power can have a better understanding of the business landscape their company is in compared to their employees. Why? Because those with power and position are ususally privy to more/better/broader/etc. information about the business/competition/industry/etc. comparied to their employees. So when they come across innovative ideas, they compare those ideas against the context/backdrop of their wider information base. With more information to understand the impact of a new idea, they are able to more quickly weed out the stuff that won’t play nice with said information.

    When a manager doesn’t explain how the innovative idea is being killed relative to this wider base of information, then you end up with employees having those cynical reasons mentioned in the post. Then again, if there was more communication, then the person offering the innovation might be able to add some piece of knowledge unknown by the manager which would affect the basis of the decision. Like in so many things, communication is paramount.

  3. Scott (admin)

    Mike: Good point. All managers deal with this on their teams for a variety of topics besides innovation. One common reason for lack of communication is when managers aren’t the decision makers, and feel forced to pass the party line down to their teams: they don’t explain because they don’t know how to say “it wasn’t my decision” without feeling like a unic.

    But in the case where it *is* the manager’s decision, it seems in their interest to help their team understand their POV, bringing them into their problem space, rather than continually turning away ideas that solve the wrong problem.

  4. jcopenha

    People in power stop innovation because they: don’t get a chance to hear the idea. They haven’t succesfully cultivated an environment where new ideas are generated and presented to the people that can make them happen.

    Yeah, it is another cynical reason. I’ll put some time into thinking about other reasons but the cynical ones are so easy ;)

  5. Vineet Reynolds

    Another cynical one:
    “my subordinate with ideas = my next boss!!! OMG. Kill the ideas.Kill her promotion.”

  6. T

    How about killing an idea because the innovation direction is so new and unstable, the team would spend too much time chasing a rapidly changing idea.

    I’ve seen that concept — sometimes true, sometimes more fig-leaf-like — deployed against adopting all kinds of web technologies, from Ajax to CSS. I’ve also seen it used truthfully to stop a team from chasing a technology that needed more time to prove solid (“threads” in Perl used in some advanced capacity, if memory serves me correctly).

  7. bob ashley

    History. Power is generically conservative. Think of Empires or Imperialism…Greek, Roman, British, French, Spanish, Japanese now American. They all rise on innovation, all fall on status quo. There are no exceptions. [The greatest artists (innovators), never emerge from the ruling class]

    Lion: King of Beasts. Innovative killer of swift prey, but the ultimate end is sloth, dozing for days after the kill, catatonic on a warm sunny rock. [Substitute boss for lion, innovation for prey, sloth for sloth]

    A incisive boss resists seeing innovation as an honorific term, i.e. innovation = good. He has no piety for it. Innovation is not a synonym for ‘better’, ‘improved’; it merely means ‘new’. The “new=better” gnome, we ought to remember, has been advertising’s best sucker game yet. Innovation can be dangerous, especially when it wears the classic “little black dress”.

  8. jon

    Too many corporates are obsessed with IP, digital rights management and what has worked in the past – ideas to protect them. Innovation is entrepreneurial not management.

  9. Lynn Cherny

    I guess this is apropos #1: It’s hard enough to produce the minimal required features with the minimal required quality for the next release — in terms of management, project schedule, design iterations, usability input, and testing at all levels — that “innovation” feels like a luxurious concept. I find this especially painful as a UI designer, who is asked in interviews to show proof of her great ideas and simulataneously to show proof of teamwork and shippable work.

    They are usually not the same thing, and the yardstick by which most of us are measured on the job are the teamwork, end results, and short term deliverables, not the vision statements that never got built because they were “too expensive” for the release goals.

    Here’s a cynical post about this, well-timed:

  10. Joe

    I’d also like to add in “People in power stop innovation because” they want to see if the new idea is truly an innovative idea or just another fad passing through. As CEO of a company you are responsible for steering the ship in the right direction and without a clear course you aren’t getting anywhere. If you have CEO’s following every new idea left and right the company ends up going in circles. Off the top of my head one fad that was supposed to change everything was the pen-computing fad of the 90s.

  11. SS

    I agree what bob ashley said

    “Power is generically conservative.”

    Also, Rejections & Refuses usually maximumize authority image(or abuse) than adoption, agreeing.

    Bias, stereotyping, personal experience, company culture, personal interests sometimes accounts for abusing power to stop innovation

  12. bhatti

    What about budget? Every idea needs to be persued, that means time, that means resources. If your manager believes it might/can work even then they are not ready to stick there neck out to fight with his/her manager for allocating resources for this work.
    Even if they do, this leads to: What happens to current work?
    More important, an idea is just an idea until u implement it. To implement you need to show measurable benefits (Cost/time/whatever). This can be dicey.

    That means only exceptional ideas/cases go through and not your normal incremental improvements.
    I guess thats why 6-sigma is so popular, as this allows for doing small incremental evolutionary innovation (hope that makes sense)

  13. Little Green Potato

    Your initial list assumes that managers actually recognize innovative or new ideas. What if this recognition never happens to begin with?

    I am convinced that there are managers out there who would not recognize innovation if it was doing backflips in their soup. They cocoon themselves so thoroughly in minutiae, micromanaging the life out of their project, that they just trample all over anything that might be considered a new idea.

    It’s not murder, it’s manslaughter.

    Certain people in power have a special capacity to create rigid, lifeless environments which effectively suffocate innovation at birth.

  14. mel starrs

    There’s always the boss who encourages innovation and then expects new ideas to perform to the same criteria as your established projects. Rather than giving an ‘incubator’ probation period, they expect new ideas to generate profit at a rate at least as high as the cash cows without any further investment and within a very short time space. The innovation is then labelled a failure and employees stop giving out their ideas because they know they will ultimately be doomed.

    Is this worse or better than squashing it in the first place?

  15. Jay

    too much (negative) experience: in my organisation driving innovation is incredibly difficult because of the cynicism of the key decision maker, any new idea is instantly compared to an existing process, product, etc and then dismissed because of the history of failure, popularity, etc. I guess this could come under risk-averse, but actually the boss’s behaviour in other areas would indicate he’s not risk-averse, just a pessimist.

  16. Cynthia Barton Rabe

    I enjoyed this article and think Scott makes some great points. In the book I recently wrote, ‘The Innovation Killer; How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine…and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It’, I make the argument that our own expertise is the most lethal of many potential innovation killers. Managers aren’t the only ones who kill ideas. Anyone who has expertise or experience in addressing challenges ‘one particular way’ can be closed to looking at things from a different perspective. I would argue, based on research and case studies, that although we may know this logically, it is, in many ways, simply human nature. I would also argue that one of the best ways to overcome this is to purposefully insert a particular type of person into teams on a temporary basis—someone I call a Zero-Gravity Thinker. Unfortunately there are many potential innovation killers —-as Scott’s list illustrates. The opportunity for every organization is to combat them one at a time …

  17. Rory O'Connor

    Hi Scott, I think a lot can be learned from the world of conflict resolution, in which I am also involved here in Northern Ireland. There is a very useful framework called I’m not saying that this is a magic bullet. What I do know is that Nonviolent Communication or NVC ( can help turn even the most cynical response into useful information that will keep an idea alive.

    NVC pays attention to the fact that all of us, are trying to meet a set of universal needs at any one time. The conflict arises when the strategies we use don’t meet with the needs of others. Let me give an example…An employee walks into her manager’s office, and says “I have this great idea for how we can transform this company”. In doing this she may be trying to meet a need for contribution, recognition, appreciation, etc. The manager looks up from his conference call and says “we don’t need to transform this company, get back to work”. What needs might he be trying to meet? A need for control, appreciation that he is doing his best at this point in time, or a need for safety – what would happen if the company changed? Would he have a job? The way (of strategy) he used to meet his needs has now set up a conflict between himself and the employee. It takes a skilled person to stay connected to another when they get a response like that to their ideas. The usual response is F*@$ You!!

    On the other hand if she tried to guess his needs at that moment and responded with “Hmm, I’m guessing your pretty busy right now, and maybe wanting some appreciation that you’re on top of things?” how might he respond. My experience is that it can be like talking down a ‘jumper’ from a ledge. The person calms down a little, and opens up more, as if someone finally gets what it’s like to be in their shoes. This leaves the door open for further dialogue.

    When you can learn to hear how, in every action, someone is trying to meet a need, you can stay connected with them as a human being. As long as you can stay connected, you still stand a chance of moving your idea forwards. There is a phrase that states “In every No, there is a Yes.” What it means is that if someone says no to one thing, they are trying to meet a separate need.

    This approach has helped me to keep ideas moving while pitching an idea to a multinational bank. At every no, I was able to guess the need they were trying to meet, highlight it, and do what I could to address it. And lo and behold, here I am now, providing innovation training for their staff!!

    This is a very rough explanation of NVC and how it can be used in Innovation. I’d encourage you to examine it while writing chapter 4 of your book – if it’s not too late.

  18. Anonymous

    1. Because its enjoyable to see the new employee full of ideas eventually through constant rejection turn into a bitter miserable cynic. And eventually they themselves become idea killers… which is when they are suitable for promotion so they in turn can take their own rage out on their subordinates.

    2. As history has shown innovation leaders are the pebble in the pond, they cause ripples but then sink. This is because you almost never recoup the R&D costs compared to a competitor copying your idea.

    3. Why innovate when you can just sleaze in exclusive contracts, pay off government regulators and take out the competition with a hostile take over.

    4. An employee must earn the right to speak to their betters, rejecting their ideas is part of stomping their fact into the shit.

    5. The bolsheveks were innovators, so innovation is another word for communism, and as such is un american. I have here with me a list of known innovators that are also members of the communist party.

    6. Innovation might harm the children.

    7. Every time you innovate, god kills a kitten… so please think of the kittens,

    8. Innovation is gay, and gay people go to hell (Only miserable people go to heaven).

    9. Innovators “Think Different” which means their mac users. Who let a mac user into the company?

    10. Innovate does not exist in the newspeak dictionary.



  1. […] From Tyler Blain, the Top ten tips on preventing innovation: His list goes further than mine in cynicism, in that it’s actually written as a playbook for squashing the creative life out of orgs. Fun read :) Of particular entertainment value: 5. Treat employees like garbage. Yell at them. Whenever possible, call them at midnight to yell at them some more. They work for us. If they get uppity, make them work on the weekends. Make them dig holes and fill them back up again. Threaten them – especially when they need the job. If you can’t yell, at least be condescending in public forums. Remember we are smarter than they are. Punks. […]

  2. Preventing Innovation…

    From Tyler Blain, the Top ten tips on preventing innovation. These are 10 common reasons innovations are stopped inside of companies….

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