“We’re a serious organization.”

Why idea killers are bad for innovation


2019, Esther van der Storm


About ten years ago – it still hurts a little when I think about it – I was in a team meeting. I was just new to the organisation and on the agenda was the discussion of a voluminous document, containing the Ten Golden Rules for good cooperation between colleagues. I wondered out loud whether these rules wouldn’t quickly disappear into the digital desk drawer. My colleagues nodded in agreement, I clearly struck a chord. And so I shared my ideas: “Couldn’t we hang the rules life-size in our office? Or introduce a Collaboration Award for Best Collaborator of the Month?”


Now my colleagues started to look a little uncomfortable. One of them joked that he could hear that I was new; we were a serious department here. After which the meeting moved on to the order of the day. Although this was almost ten years ago, I can still remember how I felt. Ouch. In the team meetings that followed, I didn’t express any creative ideas anymore.


Recognizable? Probably, because idea killers occur in every organization. At work, we prefer to opt for the familiar and the safe, because then we know more or less what the result will be. By killing ideas, we minimise as many risks as possible. But… at the same time, idea killers are the biggest enemy of innovation and creativity in your organisation. Because if you kill off every idea, there will never be any real change.


How do you recognize idea killers?

So it’s important to stop idea killers. But then you have to be able to recognise them first. Idea killers come in various forms:


1.   Verbal: “We already tried that…”, “We don’t have a budget for that”, “That’s not how we do it here”, “Put it on paper first”, “We’ll come back to it in a couple of weeks”.

2.   Behaviour and posture: While you enthusiastically present your idea, your colleagues sit down, have their arms over each other, roll their eyes or just look at their mobile phone.

3.   Personal conviction: The biggest idea killers are often in your own head. Consider how many times you have thought things like: “I can’t do that”, “This must be a crazy idea”, “What will my boss/colleague/partner say if I suggest this”?


In short: if it isn’t your colleagues who immediately shoot your idea down, you are most likely to do it yourself. What a waste! Because just when everything is allowed, you come to new creative insights.


How do you stop idea killers?

Step 1: create awareness. Let your colleagues experience how harmful idea killers are. You can do this, for example, by showing a video about the effect of idea killers or by making a list together with the idea killers that are often used in your organisation. My favourite way to make the effect of idea killers very clear is the following simple exercise, which you do with your colleagues, for example:


The Holiday Exercise

Everybody stand up and form pairs. Give all duos the assignment to come up with a holiday together. Person 1 always makes a suggestion: “Let’s go on holiday to…”. Then person 2 is allowed to respond, as long as each sentence starts with the words “yes, but”.


Such a conversation then goes like this, for example:


 “Let’s go on vacation to Indonesia!”
“Yeah, but that’s so long by plane. I hate flying!”
“Yeah, but we’ll take a transfer flight, you might as well stretch your legs in between.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like spicy food either…”


It won’t surprise you that virtually no duo agrees on the trip. Then do the exercise again, but now each sentence should start with “yes and”.


“Let’s go on holiday to Indonesia!”
“Yes, and then we can visit my great-aunt in Bali right away!”
“Yeah, and I’d like to climb the Bromo, that’d be cool.”
“Yeah, and shall we learn to surf? Let’s take lessons!”


In this example, can you feel the energy splashing off your screen? The ‘yes and’ attitude offers many more possibilities. After doing this exercise, people understand much better that we are more often in the ‘yes but’ position than in the ‘yes and’ position and the effect of that, when you are looking for new solutions.


How do you keep it up?

Now that you have made your colleagues aware of the existence of idea killers, this does not mean that it no longer occurs. That is why it is important to keep drawing attention to it. This can be done in a few playful ways:


  • The Ideekiller Poster: you can place it in meeting rooms or hang it up in a room in a large format. Contact us and we are happy to send you our Idea Killer Poster!
  • Yes but Coin jar: Give all your colleagues a bag of coins at the start of an initiative. Does an idea-killer come out of someone’s mouth? Hoppa, coin in the jar! Is your bag empty? Then you really have something to explain to the rest of your colleagues. A great way to determine how often we express idea killers and to keep recognising them, both to others and to yourself.
  • Yes, but rules: Start every meeting, workshop or training by consciously thinking about the ‘yes but rules’ together. Discuss the effect of a ‘yes-button’ and agree that you treat each other’s ideas with respect. In this way you maintain awareness.


To summarise: idea killers are quick judgements. By postponing those judgments as long as possible and giving room to crazy and wild ideas, the creativity in your organization will start flowing again. And that leads to new and surprising solutions that you would never have thought of otherwise.

Are you curious to learn how you can keep idea killers out of the door with a group in a creative process? We regularly facilitate workshops in which we teach people how to break through their fixed patterns of thinking and how to keep idea killers out of the way. Contact us and we will be happy to tell you more about it!