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Identifying Innovation Killers — and the Top 25 “That Will Never Work” Excuses

by
Dr. John Sullivan
Jul 11, 2011, 5:32 am ET

There are innovation killers in your group. You might not notice them because you have over the years grown tolerant of them, but an outsider or an innovator could spot them in a minute. I call innovation killers “that will never work” people because the minute someone comes up with a new idea, these individuals are first to offer up reasons why the new idea “will never work.”

A stubborn Missouri mule

A better label for these types of people is “innovation killer,” because they put a damper on important risk-taking and innovation. They may be the most dangerous people in your group, possibly more dangerous than that dreadful underperformer everyone knows exists but is too lazy to do anything about. Tolerating their presence may be costing you millions in lost innovation, so I suggest you develop a plan to limit their damaging behavior.

Why You Must Silence “Innovation Killers”

You can no longer expect to lead the pack in your industry simply with continuous improvement efforts. Instead, you need to raise the bar and develop a process that draws “continuous rapid innovation” (a mantra shared by Facebook and Netflix) from every individual and function in the organization. In order to get rapid continuous innovation you need to first understand that there are polarized factions within your organization that either support or resist innovative ideas. In most organizations, you can split the individuals into three basic categories:

  • Innovation champions — individuals who are often “angry” with maintaining the status quo. Nokia calls them “fist raisers.” They seek out and fully support almost any kind of risk-taking and innovation. These individuals are essential if you expect to build a competitive advantage.
  • Must-be-convinced people — these individuals make up the majority in any group. They are comfortable with the status quo but with sufficient arguments and a strong business case, they will support moderate change.
  • “That will never work” innovation killers – because the initial phases of risk-taking and innovation are highly fragile, new ideas are easy to undermine and get off track. These team members specialize in coming up with “that will never work” excuses when any new idea is presented. These are truly evil individuals that must be silenced or removed if you expect any level of risk taking and innovation in your group.

It is this last group that subtly but effectively undermines corporate innovation. In a meeting, even before a new idea is completely presented, they joyfully interrupt with arguments that usually include:

  • We tried that before … and it didn’t work
  • We are different … and it would never work here because it doesn’t fit our culture
  • That’s OK in theory… but I have been doing HR for __ years and based on my experience, it won’t work

If you take even a minute to connect these innovation-killer phrases to specific individuals in your team, you will find that these “that will never work” individuals are easy to identify. Rather than taking the professional approach and trying to find ways around potential problems, these individuals instead try to cut off new ideas before they even get started. History is full of examples of these “that will never work” people. They were in the meeting when Columbus proposed to Italian leaders that it would be profitable to sail west to India; they suggested that FedEx was a silly idea; and more recently, they certainly laughed at the idea of Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga becoming profitable companies.

How to Silence Innovation Killers

There are several ways to silence or mitigate the impact of “that will never work” individuals within your group. Some action steps to consider include:

  • Demonstrate the damage they cause — take some time either individually or in a group meeting to list the ways that this behavior can damage innovation. Show everyone how detrimental this behavior can be (many innovation killers actually think they are being helpful).
  • Forbid whining — whining is defined as complaining about an idea without providing a possible method for mitigating or avoiding that problem. Simply make it a rule that an individual can’t propose barriers or problems without simultaneously providing a possible solution to each one.
  • Postpone criticism – make it a standard practice that criticism of new ideas must be postponed until after the idea is completely presented.
  • Limit criticism – during the initial presentation of an idea, limit the number of major criticisms of an innovative idea to three and only allow a single criticism from any one individual.
  • Encourage “find a way” behavior – encourage and reward individuals who constructively identify ways to work around potential problems. Celebrate individuals who “find a way” around both real and imagined problems. Make heroes out of individuals who find benchmark examples of where the new practice has succeeded.
  • Forbid standard innovation killer phrases – don’t allow anyone to use “innovation killer phrases” during your meetings (a complete list can be found in the next section).
  • Ban them — simply don’t allow these individuals to participate in idea generation meetings until their behavior changes, or better yet, fire them and replace them with those that support innovation.

How to Identify Innovation Killers

Most know exactly who these individuals are, but if you need help there are several ways to identify “that will never work” individuals. Start by looking at situations where a vote is taken on a new idea. These individuals will consistently vote against trying things. You can also simply ask your innovators to identify the individuals who they dread having in their presentations. Next, compare track records: innovation killers will have likely never sponsored an innovation themselves.

The best way to identify “that will never work” people is by recording the names of individuals who voice emotional arguments (without data to support them) related to why any proposed idea will never work. Occasionally you will find more than one of these individuals and they will literally “duel” each other during a presentation to see who can come up with the most program killer comments. Fortunately, I have compiled a complete list of “excuses for doing nothing” and avoiding change that these individuals routinely use.

The Top 25 “Innovation Killing Excuses”

Innovation killers use a common language and they use the same excuses over and over. They specialize in phrases like these:

  1. We tried that once already and it didn’t work (or I heard that it failed at XYZ firm)
  2. We have always done it the current way and it has worked fine
  3. I read somewhere that the program has lots of problems (or I can think of ____ good reasons why that can never work)
  4. We might get sued if we did that (although no data is presented)
  5. Budgets are tight and we simply can’t afford it (or I suggest we postpone it until next year when we have more resources)
  6. You don’t understand — we are different (variations cover our culture and industry)
  7. Our CEO/ boss once said that they were against it (even though no quote is provided and that comment might have been years ago )
  8. We could never get a consensus or “buy in” on it
  9. We already had a vote not to do that
  10. We have a policy against that
  11. That idea runs counter to our values, mission, or vision
  12. The supporting numbers and metrics can be bent to prove anything
  13. I am not comfortable with the data that supports the program
  14. I don’t think/ believe/feel that will work
  15. Our stakeholders would never support it (employees/ the union/ our customers)
  16. Our employee are already overworked, they can’t handle anything else (we will have a mutiny on our hands if we try this)
  17. I have talked to a lot of people and they simply don’t support it
  18. That won’t work in my region/country … we are unique and we have unique needs so we should be exempt
  19. That’s OK in theory but I have been doing HR for __ years and it won’t work (or that’s an academic solution… we live in the real world)
  20. We once formed a committee/ team but they couldn’t come up with a solution
  21. Ideas that come from ___________ are never any good
  22. Equity demands we treat everyone the same
  23. We can’t use technology … we will lose the “human” touch
  24. IT will never allow that and we have a weak track record using new technology
  25. Our software or vendor won’t support that

“That Will Never Work” People Don’t Have to Be Employees

Sometimes when you read about or hear an innovative idea, your benchmarking efforts for understanding the practice will include reading comments on Internet forums (the ERE.net comment section is an excellent example) for advice. Reading these comments will quickly show you that the world is full of individuals who frequently comment on these sites with dozens of reasons why an innovation will never work, even if the supporting article provided evidence that it has already worked at top firms.

My favorite fallacious argument is a variation on “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen it work.” This is actually an accurate statement because the individual making the comment is usually a subpar performer whose experience is limited to mediocre work. A lifetime of work with non-innovative firms will actually mean that the person making the comment really has not had the opportunity to work with truly innovative individuals. As a result, when benchmarking, I suggest that you only listen to those individuals who have worked with really successful and innovative firms like Google, Facebook, Zappos, Netflix, etc.

Think of these “that will never work” individuals as the sea captains who were in the room in 1491 when Columbus suggested sailing west. They would be able to honestly say that “they’ve never seen such a voyage succeed” and they would be right. If Columbus had listened to them, he would’ve been a fool. It certainly true that any innovative idea will face a multitude of problems but the real heroes are those who propose ways to work through them.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Dan Swanson

    Interesting thoughts John though, often, change for change sake is as damaging.

  2. Martin Snyder

    “These are truly evil individuals” is a fairly hateful and innovation killing mindset by itself. There are lots of super hard working and dedicated protectors of the status quo out there, and this idea that every innovation is “good” just because it’s new is a philosophical absurdity.

    In fact, being right too soon can be a killer of careers and companies.

    Love to hear how WW and the Assessment brigade score for innovation and avoiding the talk John identifies above, although limiting discussion and banning people whose ideas you don’t like seems like kind of a roundabout way to foster genuine innovation.

    Finally, there have been many, many success stories where innovation is shunned and careful evolutionary iteration is sought (e.g. Porsche 911).

    The most important thing is to handle innovation in ways appropriate to the workforce and markets at hand……

  3. Brian Kevin Johnston

    Good reading to start the week… “Energy Vampires” is what I call them, and I stay clear… (90%+ of our Industry) Best to ALL….

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  6. Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Dr. Sullivan. ISTM that if one wants to find many such people in a corporate environment/hierarchy, one need only look up. It’s far more dangerous to one’s career to appear to be an innovator than to “go along to get along”.

    If I may re-name your three categories:
    •Innovation champions — individuals who are often “angry” with maintaining the status quo.
    RENAME: Trouble-makers, muck-rakers, s***-stirrers, rabble-rousers, dissidents, traitors, the soon-to-be unemployed. There are a few exceptions to this- the master politicians who are able to create protective alliances/resources which advance their goal of meaningful reform without becoming jaded.

    •Must-be-convinced people — these individuals make up the majority in any group.
    RENAME: The Silent Majority, opportunists, office politicians, game-players. They watch carefully to see which way the wind is blowing to see who to support and who to oppose. They may go far….

    •“That will never work” innovation killers – because the initial phases of risk-taking and innovation are highly fragile, new ideas are easy to undermine and get off track.
    RENAME: Stalwarts, old-reliables, fuddy-duddies, reactionaries. Most of Category II ends up here when their careers seem to have solidified, while a considerable number of people are like this by nature. They oppose innovation for its own sake, regarding almost any change as a threat to themselves, their positions, or their values- and they’re right- change is a threat. (They also keep things from falling apart.)

    A good corporate strategy is to APPEAR to be a bold innovator, while actually doing little if anything meaningful. (You know who you are….) I suspect that many corporate attendees to recruiting conventions (except for our Gentle Readers here) do exactly this.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  7. Jacqueline Nagle

    Really interesting article, and I agree with it in principle. More recently I have developed the skills to actually bring these people into the planning process, after seeing it done successfully a number of times and deciding it was a skill worth having. To use the innovation killers as the barometer in the room and the people who can most likely identify the problems, roadblocks, and challenges that may appear. Draw them into the conversation as the base line, exploring with them the reasons it didn’t work and bringing them with you to identify whether or not that risk may still exist, then once you have their agreement that ‘that’ represents what may go wrong, then you engage the ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ thinkers in the room to come up with solutions and strategies to overcome it. This way it is not isolation, but recognising the strengths of everyone and playing to them to get the best innovation available. The option of “Banning” should be an absolute last resort, unless you are using the cull the bottom 10% across everything in your business / organisation.

  8. Keith Halperin

    @ Jacqueline N:
    At the risk of giving away your trade secrets, I’d love to learn how to do this, or where I can learn….

    Cheers,

    Keith H
    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net
    415.586.8265

  9. Henning Seip

    Love the post!

  10. earthgong earthgong

    Dan, with respect, I should think that statements of “change for change’s sake” may constitute a 26th excuse.

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  12. Jacqueline Nagle

    @Keith H…fortunate enough to do my NLP certification with a really business/leadership savvy trainer which is where I learnt the techniques, but it was an intensive professional speakers training which taught me how to keep control of a group – the two together really invaluable…@earthgong – that was definitely #26!

  13. Keith Halperin

    @ Jacqueline: Thanks.
    How about some more:
    “They won’t like it/go for it.” (#7, #17 variations)
    “When you’re here awhile you’ll see that’s not the way we do things.”
    “If we wanted advice, we would have paid a consultant for it/heard about it at ERE.con”
    “You’re not being paid to think, you’re being paid to DO.”
    “If we wanted to hear your ideas, we would have asked you for them.”

    -kh

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