17 ways to murder an idea – Vicky Gillan

07 Aug 2017

It may be hard to believe, but before the internet was invented there was already a mechanism by which things could go viral. It was called the photo-copier.

A particularly amusing newspaper clipping, joke or resignation letter would be photocopied and passed round the office, often remaining in circulation long after the originator had left the company. The list I’m sharing with you here is just such an item. It was handed to me by a former colleague, and I never knew where he got it from. In every meeting we went to afterwards, we’d secretly nod at each other when we spotted a stakeholder using an approach off the list to kill an idea they didn’t want to progress.

I found that photocopy a little while ago, and the same list turned up in a couple of places when I searched for it online. It seems as relevant now as it did then; how many of these ways to murder an idea have you observed or heard recently?

  1. See it coming and quickly change the subject.
  2. Ignore it. Dead silence intimidates all but the most enthusiastic.
  3. Feign interest but do nothing about it. This at least prevents the originator from taking their idea elsewhere.
  4. Scorn it. “You’re joking, of course.” Make sure to get your comment in before the idea is fully explained.
  5. Laugh it off. “That’s a good one, Joe. You must have been awake all night thinking that up.”
  6. Praise it to death. By the time you have expounded its merits for five minutes everyone else will hate it.
  7. Mention that it has never been tried before. If the idea is genuinely original, this is certain to be true. Alternatively, say “If the idea’s so wonderful, why hasn’t someone else already tried it?”
  8. Say “Oh, we’ve tried that before” – even if it’s not true. Particularly effective with newcomers. It makes them realise what complete outsiders they are.
  9. Come up with a competitive idea. This can be a dangerous tactic, as you might still be left with an idea to follow up.
  10. Stall it with any of the following: “We’re not ready for it yet, but in the fullness of time…”; “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, but right now…”; “Let’s wait until the new organisation has settled down…”
  11. Modify it out of existence. This is elegant. You seem to be helping the idea along, just changing it a bit here and there. By the time the originator realises what is happening, their idea is dead.
  12. Try to chip bits off it. If you fiddle with an idea long enough, it may fall to pieces.
  13. Make a strong personal attack on the originator. By the time he or she has recovered, the idea won’t seem so important.
  14. Appoint a committee to sit on the idea. As Sir Barnett Cox observed, “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured, then quietly strangled.”
  15. Drown it in cold water, as in: “We haven’t got the staff to do it…the intangible risks would be too great…that’s all very well in theory, but in real life…”
  16. Return it to sender with: “You need to be much more specific about your proposal.”
  17. If all else fails, encourage the originator to look for a better idea – usually a discouraging quest. If he or she actually returns with one, start them looking for a better job.

We’ve all seen our ideas killed, and sometimes that was absolutely needed. After all, part of the creative process is to sort the great ideas from the okay ones, the on brief from the off brief ideas. But when it feels like we’re more pressed for time than ever, the more serious point is how do we ensure our imaginative people – whether in house or external – are able to do their best work? And how do we ensure that in our desire for speed and agility, we don’t leave the best ideas in the delete folder, or worse retained in our team’s heads?

The fact is that ideas need two main things if they’re to flow; time, and other ideas. If you give people the opportunity to discuss their ideas properly, you’ll end up with far more ideas at the end of the session than you had at the beginning.

So, if you know the 17 ways to kill an idea, you can prepare for them and make sure your ideas get the hearing they deserve. For example, when working client side, one of my senior colleagues was a big fan of numbers 14 and 16.  His stock answer was to suggest a project team, with a relentless criticism of the lack of detail at the initial stages. This inevitably led to resource issues and death by delays. I changed tack, and made sure I got him on board with whatever I or my team was proposing before the next exec meeting. It didn’t always work but it certainly helped.

On the other hand, if you sometimes find yourself using one of these techniques to kill an idea, you might want to pause and ask yourself why. After all, in our quest for genuine innovation and disruption, creating the sort of safe space in your business that’s needed for ideas and innovation to truly flourish, has never been so critical.


About The Author

VG #1

Vicky Gillan

Lead Consultant, Upskill

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