Three Ways Organisations Kill Ideas (And How You Can Remove Them)


 Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place – often for very good reasons – that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that either promote creativity or quell it.

Our employees generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently. These ideas – thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

It’s a chronic waste of knowledge that organisations must make it a priority to unlock.

However , simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough.

The odds of a turtle hatchling reaching adulthood are said to be 1 in 1,000. But in most organisations the chance of an idea reaching maturity has significantly worse odds.

As I detailed in my last conference slot – getting your organisation innovation ready means facing off three of the biggest threats to the survival of ideas.

1: Meetings

Meetings are the number one idea killer in any organisation.

Meetings can crush ideas. They are all too often a corporate power play where ego runs rampant. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It might have been a bad idea. It might have changed the world. We’ll never know – because someone just beat the hell out of it.  

I’ve been in meetings where senior leaders have debated the pros and the cons of an idea (usually the cons) that hasn’t even reached proof of concept.

Solution: create a space where an idea can take its first few breaths without someone trampling all over it. Let it come to life in a nurturing environment where we can see if it solves the right problems.

And keep managers out. There is evidence that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

Only present it to a meeting after a test has demonstrated it’s actually worth doing. Arm yourself with evidence and a working prototype.

2: Hierarchy

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Think about it. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

Ideally you’ll have the resources to establish an Innovation Lab or Intrapreneurship programme , but in truth any of us can create a virtual space that brings together innovators.

Internal social networks are great places to crowdsource ideas without being tied to the traditional corporate system.

Bypass the middle management ground and go straight to source.

Provocative ideas and posts will help identify innovators who you can work with to bring about change. It’s important that any informal group you establish is non-hierarchical. Swarming around a problem with very disparate points of view is often where the magic happens.

If that all fails just take this advice from Helen Reynolds: adopt guerilla innovation – just don’t tell anyone what you’re doing.

3: Job Descriptions

Job Descriptions are a much underrated enemy of innovation.

They encourage people to play it safe, keep their head down and do the very minimum. They are essentially a one pager on how not to be sacked – an insurance policy against someone screwing up.

However the effects of traditional JD’s are far reaching. They discourage risk taking and imagining better ways to perform the role (such as making it unnecessary in the first place.)

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. Forever.

Additionally JD’s encourage organisational silos. They demand that people only think of the service from their point of view , rather than how the entire organisation impacts on the customer.

There are a number of solutions here.

The first is to abandon job descriptions altogether and move to a system of role priorities. Too radical for the public sector? Not really. Redkite Community Housing have recently done that very thing.

Secondly you could stick with JD’s but sex them up – making it clear they are actively working against the status quo. You can read more in my top five rules for job descriptions.  Disclosure: I do have a JD (although I’ve never read it to be honest).

The most achievable way of breaking away from silo thinking is to establish a way for colleagues to pitch ideas that benefit the customer. Establishing one point in your organisation that evaluates and acts upon bright ideas from stakeholders, customers and colleagues is the simplest way to make innovation part of everyone’s job.

Our environment is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and interconnected. We can’t afford to have our organisations stifled by the protocols of a very different age.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these three idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.


9 thoughts on “Three Ways Organisations Kill Ideas (And How You Can Remove Them)

  1. The hierarchies point is just so resonant to me. It took me a while to realise in my career that people at the top of hierarchies are often risk averse precisely because being risk averse is the behaviour that got them to where they are. People who take risks tend to get spat out of organisations because they lay themselves open to the kinds of people who think they are being useful by being hypercritical at meetings, another of your points, Paul.

    I have been frequently frustrated at trying to sell change to the kinds of people who have built lucrative careers out of running things as they are and are not likely to risk their final salary pensions by changing the behaviour of their lifetimes.

    1. Thanks John. Part of the issue is the legacy of old industrial models of working. Companies used to have to operate like machines (some still do) whereas now they have to be more than brains.

      Hierarchies had an important role – to issue orders and make the necessary decisions. As David Burkus has pointed out, they did this “so well that creative ideas stand little chance of being utilised unless they’re being shared from the top downward.”

      That’s great for innovation from the top – but if you’re after a culture where people on frontline are actively engaged in change it’s just not going to work. That’s when risk-takers and innovators will find themselves up against a machine that , as you say, is likely to reject them.

      Thanks for comment as always!

  2. Meetings are great killers of ideas. Some words of defeat are ‘ I will look into it’ by anyone at the meeting. ‘Let’s discuss this at the next meeting’ your ideas have to come in under any other business which is always at the end of the meeting when time is short. There should be a move to shunt it up the Agenda and not just before the coffee break. I was in the lucky position where I could send my ideas to the CEO. He often told me he liked them and he had passed it on to one of the Execs to investigate. Most times never heard of again. Sometimes I remarked to the CEO that I hadn’t heard anything and on occasions he had rebuked the Exec in question but still no response. However some of my ideas did see the light of day but often a year or more later. I got no credit for them but as a volunteer I was satisfied. The question for most people is ‘where can I take this idea, without getting it stolen or ignored and usually the reply is nowhere. Suggestion boxes have gone out of fashion mainly because I think most were ignored or you got £10 for saving the company thousands. One of my ideas was to set up a little group as a Think Tank where people could take their ideas via a presentation or just verbally. Each idea would be recorded and a time limit on the first evaluation sent to the donor, CEO and responsible Exec. This didn’t take off either.

    1. Thanks Michael for your comment. What a shame those ideas were never explored and imagine that scaled across the country. A huge waste of creativity!

      1. Thank you Paul. You have raised a very important matter with your blog. There is so much creativity lost. I wonder if it is the fear of something new which seems strong in our nature or is it culture? I don’t know if other countries have the same issue, I suspect not in the USA.

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