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Beware of the idea killer

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Why read this? : We look at how to spot an idea killer. Learn 10 common giveaways in what they say and do. We share examples of where they lurk, and how to get your idea past them unscathed. Read this to learn how to protect your ideas against idea killers. 

Good creative problem-solving avoids killing ideas too early. It allows ideas time to grow, as ideas never start fully formed. Killing ideas early kills the potential of what they could’ve been.

Ideas get killed all the time in marketing, creative and e-Commerce. The idea killers claim they’re protecting the business. New ideas are risky, they say. Kill the idea, remove the risk. 

But that’s not actually how it works. You need ideas to grow your business. For example, see our benefits of creative thinking article to see how ideas differentiate your brand, drive customer experience and deliver brand assets. Some ideas will work. Some won’t. But killing all ideas is more of a risk. Businesses with no ideas go nowhere.

So this article shares 10 common signs you’re up against an idea killer. Plus, our thoughts on how to deal with each one. 

Idea killer 1 - Ignore it

There are 3 broad types of people in terms of creativity. (See our how to be a creative company article for more on this).  

Creators, who like to generate new ideas. Critics, who like to kill new ideas. And coasters, who don’t care one way or the other. 

We’ll focus on critics here. But we’ll start with coasters who have one special tactic that kills your idea. 

They ignore it. 

A woman with a finger over her mouth making the shhhh signal

It’s very common in workshops. You break into groups to brainstorm. Somebody grabs the Sharpie. You shout out your great idea. And they don’t write it down. Frustrating, right?

Or it happens in a bigger group. The facilitator states the problem and asks for ideas. You bravely volunteer your idea. They nod. And then ask, “Anyone else?”. Your idea is immediately binned. Soul-crushing, right?

It doesn’t even have to be face-to-face. Digital channels have created whole new ways to have your ideas ignored. You send out an idea via email or group chat. Ask for thoughts and feedback. And get nothing back. Nothing. Urgh. Annoying, right?

Being less ignorable

If your ideas get ignored, you need to work on making them less ignorable.

First, it often helps to direct your idea to a specific person, not the whole group. You might be getting ignored because of what’s called the bystander effect

That’s when people don’t respond to a message or situation because they assume someone else in the group will. But if everyone assumes this, no one responds at all. 

So, ask a specific person for feedback. Say their name in the meeting or workshop. Send them the email directly, but don’t cc anyone else.

Putting it in writing also makes the request more tangible. More visible. It’s hard to ignore a message that’s clearly meant for you alone.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

Idea killer 2 - Head it off before it gets started

Getting your idea noticed is good. But it’s likely to attract the attention of a critic / idea killer. And they have many ways to stomp on your idea. 

If they notice your idea early enough, they’ll often try to head it off before it gets started. They want to stop it from gathering momentum. 

It happens a lot in businesses where the culture demands approvals. You get a team of senior leaders who control everything. Nothing happens without their say-so. Approval teams and processes kill ideas all the time. 

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

Breakthrough innovations, for example. Working with a new supplier. New ways of working like digital marketing and e-Commerce. Approval teams make it hard to get these types of ideas off the ground. 

They create an environment hostile to new ideas. They slow things down by only meeting once a month. There are long lists of requirements to satisfy before they’ll look at your idea. Everything has to be on the agenda well in advance. Do something late, or the wrong way, and they won’t look at it. These are all idea-killer tactics. Rigid formats and fixed timelines make getting new ideas started hard work.

Jumping through these hoops drains your enthusiasm, excitement and energy. Your idea gets drowned in tedious box-ticking. To get past this, you have to look at the process of how ideas start in your business. 

Protect your ugly babies

For example, we like the way animation giant, Pixar handles this.

They call their new ideas “ugly babies”. They recognise new ideas are often imperfect, and take time to evolve and grow. So, they nurture rather than neutralise these newborn ideas. 

A small expert team called the “Brains Trust” works with the idea creators. Their remit is to give constructive criticism. To ask questions which help improve the idea. Importantly, they’ve no approval powers. They can’t kill ideas, only help them. 

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

Ideas only move into approvals when they’ve had time to grow. To become more robust. If you run into an idea killer who likes to strike early, think about how you could adapt the Pixar approach. Build in some early-stage protected time and expert support. Hold ideas back from your approval process until they’re robust enough to defend themselves. (See this article for more on Pixar’s creativity).

Idea killer 3 - Laugh at it

Next idea killer is when someone laughs at your idea. They joke about it, so no one takes it seriously.

It’s usually from critics who feel threatened and want to protect the status quo. 

They think they’re being funny. But their humour has a serious impact on new ideas.

Gentle teasing which patronises the idea creator. That’s a bit out there, isn’t it?

Or it’s more aggressive and dismissive. You’re joking, surely? What have you been smoking? 

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

Pre-emptive strike on humour

This is tricky to handle. You risk coming across as not getting the “joke”. Taking yourself too seriously. No sense of humour. 

To get past this idea killer, you need a pre-emptive strike. Be prepared, so you’re in control of how much humour gets chucked at your idea.

For example, double down on the humour first. Allude to other ideas which seemed crazy at first, but which later were huge. Or reference funny real-life situations where your idea will help. Isn’t it annoying when “x” happens? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to make that better? Well, our idea shows …

Or, go the other way. Take away the option of including it at all. Point out the serious nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. Tap into people’s emotions. Did you know x% of our customers suffer when “x” happens? Well, our idea shows …

Set the level of humour about the idea first, and you stop the idea killer from having the last laugh.

Idea killer 4 - Not how we do it here

The next idea killer tactic is to tie the idea up in process red tape and let it slowly die by inertia. They say it’s not how we do it here.

It often happens when businesses don’t recognise the creative part of a business has to run differently from the operational part. (See our generating more ideas article for more on this). 

The creative part of your business is all about speculating and experimenting. It’s where ideas start and grow. 

The operational part turns ideas into action. But only when those ideas are ready to go.

Creative and operations - diagram showing differences between two different ways of working

Often when you hear an idea killer say, “It’s not how we do it here”, they’re talking about the operational part. But that part only comes into play when those ideas are fully formed and tested. When it’s clear it’s something the business should do to improve the way it works.

Creative fuels future operations

To take on this idea killer, you have to make clear that only fully formed ideas go into the operational process of “how we do it here”. 

Talk about how your idea now unlocks future benefits. Highlight its beneficial impact on “how we do it here”. Run small test cases and pilot projects. Talk about working in an agile, test-and-learn way. Most people don’t know what that means anyway, so it’s hard to argue against. (See our innovation guide for more on agile). 

Once an idea gets momentum (and resources), it gains a life of its own. It becomes harder for the idea killer to stop it. And it starts to become “how we do things here”

Idea killer 5 - We already tried that

Another idea killer is when people use the company’s history to block you.

You suggest something. And they say, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work”. 

It sounds challenging, but it’s a weak argument. Business context changes all the time. Customer habits change.

What didn’t work before might be perfect now if the circumstances are right. 

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

So, you need to dig into “what we tried before”. Because it’s unlikely your idea, and what was done then are exactly the same.

Ask the idea killer who throws this one out for more detail. You often find their memory of it isn’t as clear as they think it is.

As per our emotions in creativity article, no one has a perfect memory. We only remember fragments of events. And if asked to recall them, these memories are skewed by subjective bias. Confirmation bias, for example. We’re better at remembering things which reinforce our current view. If someone’s against your current idea, they’ll only dig out their negative memories of the previous idea.

Dig into the previous idea

A scientific approach helps you tackle this idea killer. Approach the past failed idea as if you were an archaeologist seeking to unearth its secrets.

Don’t take the “it didn’t work” statement at face value. Ask questions. Dig into why it didn’t work. Ask them to share any documents which cover the previous idea, for example. Research or performance reports you can look at and learn from.

If there are no documents, you can argue the context has changed, and the old idea isn’t relevant any more. And in any case, trying new ideas and learning from your mistakes is a key part of innovation. There’s a famous story that Edison had 9,999 failures before he perfected the light bulb. 

And if by chance, there are documents, use those to improve your current idea. Apply the lessons so your current idea is better than what didn’t work before.

Idea killer 6 - Yes, but …

The next idea killer tactic acknowledges your idea might have some merit.

But it aims to throw a “but” in front of it.

They’ll say it’s a good idea … but we don’t have the right people. Or, … but it’s too much risk. Or, … but it won’t work in real life

These sound reasonable, don’t they? But, they’re just excuses. And excuses can be overcome. 

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

The right people

“We don’t have the staff or expertise”

We ran into this issue with our IT team when we launched our first D2C store. In that case, we thought laterally and asked our global team to help. We also showed how the idea would drive the profit and loss. That meant we could pay for the extra people from the extra sales the idea generated. The key point is there are always ways you can find the right staff or expertise. 

The risk

There’s too much risk”. 

Risk can be a tricky subject to manage. Most people don’t like taking risks. But there’s also risk in doing nothing. It’s about how you position and take the right amount of risk. Again, preparation is key. Think about what the risks might be. List them out, and create a contingency plan for each. 

Knowing you’ve thought about and planned for risk reassures most people.

Real life

“That’s great in theory, but it won’t work in real life”.

This implies you’re somehow not being practical or realistic. But, it’s a bit of a passive-aggressive attack though, isn’t it?

But who’s to say they’re more of an expert on “real life” than you? The idea killer view of the world is different from yours. But that doesn’t mean their view is better.

It’s similar to the idea killer way of saying, “It’s not how we do things here”. Real-life critics tend to only think about operations. But that’s not where ideas start. Ideas start in the creative part, and being impractical and unrealistic there is OK. 

In fact, that’s often how the most breakthrough ideas start. Give them time to grow. It’ll soon be clear whether they’ll work in “real life” when you test it with customers. That’s where you see if it’ll work in real life.

Idea killer 7 - Stall it

This idea-killer tactic focuses on ideas which have gained some initial momentum.

It aims to kill that momentum by creating reasons for a delay. To drag things out. Slow things down.

Delays suck the excitement, energy and enthusiasm out of an idea. And without those, ideas slowly die.

People who use this tactic realise this. So they go slow on everything. They sound like they’re being measured and sensible.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

Let’s not rush into this. Let’s plan this properly. We’ll do it when the time’s right.

This implies you’re impatient. That you haven’t thought things through properly. 

Ideas end up going on the back burner. But that automatically marks them as unimportant. You don’t want that. Most back-burner ideas get stuck there and never make it. If you see that happening, it’s time to get more specific about time.

Get specific about time

The way to take this on is to get very specific about the time

If the reality is you can’t start something straight away, get an agreement on when you can start. Get a commitment to a time when decisions will happen. Make sure the timings are written down, and everyone knows what they are. 

Call out the idea killer on their stalling tactics by asking direct questions. When will we be ready? Can we put a date in the diary? Can we get started on something now, to prepare for when we’re ready?

Flag the consequences and risks of delays. We’ll miss the range review date. The competitor will launch before us. It’ll cost us more to keep doing it the old way.  

It’s tough because every business has to prioritise. You need to convince people your idea is important enough to be a priority.

Idea killer 8 - Appoint a committee

There’s a famous quote from an old English politician that a committee is a cul-de-sac where ideas are quietly strangled. 

The idea of a committee is fine. A group of interested parties review a subject or proposal. In theory, a better quality decision because of their combined expertise. Sounds like a good idea.

But in real life (!), committees don’t work that way. Yes, there’s expertise. But there are also opinions and political agendas. (See our alternative 4Ps of marketing article for more on this).  

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

Committees fear creativity and the risk of making a bad decision. They compromise. Play it safe. Do things slowly and thoroughly. Wait for the time to be right. These are group stalling tactics which slowly kill off ideas.

Dealing with committees

There are 2 different ways to deal with committees.

First, play the game their way, but play it hard. Analyse how the committee works. Look at the different personality types involved. Who’s on the committee? How do they make decisions? What’s their agenda? Learn their rules and requirements, and make how you present your ideas work within those restrictions.

Or, go the other way. Find a way to navigate around it. Is there another path your idea can follow to make it through your business? Most committees run on habits. These don’t have to be set in stone. Try suggesting your new idea doesn’t fit with the committee’s purpose.

For example, when we work on digital services, say a D2C store, we always recommend the approval committee is different from the one which signs off product innovation projects. It’s a different proposition, requiring different expertise. And if you can help define the expertise needed and who should be on the committee, even better. You just make sure anyone who’s an idea killer isn’t on the invite list.

Idea killer 9 - Be more specific

Another tricky idea-killer tactic is to ask the idea originator to be more specific.

On the face of it, it sounds like the questioner is interested in the idea.

“Tell me more about it”, they say.

But this is just a slightly cleverer stalling tactic. You usually need to go away and do a bunch of work to make your idea more specific.

More research. More thinking. These take more time.

Ideas get more specific as they grow. You add details as you find out more. But if you get hit with this specific idea-killer question too early, it can sound like you’re unprepared or haven’t properly thought things through. 

Ask them to be more specific

One way to deal with the be specific idea killer is to turn it back on them. Ask them to be more specific about what they want you to be more specific about. 

If they can be more specific, it helps you understand what they want. For example, I want to feel more confident about the forecast. Or, I’d like to see more results from the customer feedbackThose are all helpful as they’re specific.

But if instead, you get woolly, unspecific responses, you know they’re trying to kill your idea. I’m just not feeling it. Something’s not quite right about this, but I don’t know what it is. It’s just not doing it for me. 

If you get these types of responses, try asking the question a different way. For example, ask them specifically what it would take to make them more comfortable with the idea. What would make them more confident it’s worth doing?

Worst case, you get specific reasons they’re trying to kill your idea. That at least gets things out in the open so you can deal with them. 

And best case, their feedback makes your idea stronger. And if they feel they’ve contributed to the idea, they’re much less likely to kill it.

Idea killer 10 - Say you like it, then do nothing

Ideas only exist in people’s heads. You have to get people to act on those ideas for them to make a difference. That can be tough. 

So you might run into the type of idea killer who nods in agreement as you share your idea.

They even tell you it’s a good idea. But then they do nothing about it.

They carry on as they were before. As if you’d never suggested the idea in the first place. This happens more than you’d think.

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

That’s why it’s important to attach action lists to your idea. What’s been agreed? Who’s going to do it? When do they need to do it? 

Write these actions down. Make sure everyone gets a copy. 

It’s harder to wriggle out of written agreements. Writing it down secures a commitment to act. Commitments are hard to break. Action lists are like an internal call to action for your idea. They make clear what everyone needs to do next. People have to commit to actions or get out of the way of making actions happen.

Conclusion - Beware of the idea killer

No one ever admits to being an idea killer. It sounds so negative.

Ideas bring excitement to a business. They bring people together and create energy and enthusiasm. 

But the reality is new ideas involve change. And change is hard work for most people.

It creates tension, conflict and fear. Those make people defensive. Change is what stirs up the idea killer in most businesses. 

Close up image of a man in a suit wiping away a tear and looking sad

There are 2 main ways to deal with idea killers. 

The first is preparation. The more you anticipate the challenges, the better you deal with them. So plan for the types of idea-killer questions we’ve covered here. The answers make your idea more robust anyway. A good idea can stand up to these types of killer questions. Be prepared. Think ahead. Know your idea’s benefits. Get specific.

The second is bravery. Taking on an idea killer means having the courage to stand up to them. Ask them questions back. Challenge them to explain their challenges and delaying actions. Ask them to explain and be specific about why they want to kill your idea. 

This makes your idea stronger. More robust. Or you realise your idea wasn’t as good as you thought it was. Either way, being brave puts you in a stronger position with the idea killer. Which is good for your idea’s survival chances. 

Check out our being a more creative company and generating more creative ideas articles for more on this. Or get in touch, if you need help dealing with idea killers in your business.  

Photo credits 

Man crying : Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Quiet – Shhh! : Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Toy Story Woody doll : Photo by Melanie THESE on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Surprised Monkey : Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

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