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Commentary

How to Kill a Good Idea

Mar 27, 2016

Corporations are complex entities. There are many people working for them, usually. And by “many” I mean more than two. This creates politics and conflicting agendas and fuels the constant battle between forward ­momentum and inertia—with proponents on both sides.

Somewhere in all of that, an idea is occasionally born. A little flower pops its delicate head up through the organizational macadam and, against all odds, succeeds in blossoming into a healthy plant. Most of the time, though, somebody comes along with a heavy vehicle and runs over it.

Given that reality, it’s important to review why and how organizations kill ideas. I hope you find this exercise helpful the next time you want to be the one driving the truck. Or when your flower is about to get crushed. To begin, let’s look at some reasons an idea might get killed.

1. It’s bad: 85.4% of all ideas are useless, time wasting, distracting, aggravating to too many people, dangerous, boneheaded, or just plain superfluous. Unless they come from a senior officer, they are easily squelched.

2. You didn’t think of it: Other people’s ideas are a drag, aren’t they? You were doing something else. Now you have to think about this? Forget it.

3. It threatens your territory: Sure, it’s an intriguing notion. But executing it would put Bob or Barbra into your meeting zone. Who needs them in there?

4. It conflicts with something you’re doing: Like lunch. Or vacation. Or that trip to L.A. Or whatever, right?

5. Oswald thought of it: And you hate that preening little weasel.

6. You’re an insecure weasel yourself: Other people may get the credit, and there’s only so much credit to go around!

7. It’s inconsistent with prevailing culture: In the ’80s, you had to be for excellence. In the ’90s, you had to be for greed. Now you have to like disruption and open offices. Any contradictory notions must be terminated.

8. It’s good: Good ideas are deeply threatening to the everyday run of business. They get in the way of all the other things people are doing.

That’s the motivation side. As for implementation? There are a host of ways that even the best idea can be strangled in its cradle. Here are some classics.

1. Meeting it to death: This is often referred to politely as a “Japanese no.” Meeting after meeting is held to reach absolutely no conclusion, and even if one is reached, it’s never communicated. Anybody who’s ever had a movie script “in development” can relate.

2. Depositing it with the well-meaning but powerless: Earnest subordinates generally have a lot of good ideas of their own, but a limited ability to execute them. After a time, they will produce an excellent document that can be studied until it isn’t.

3. Bigfooting it: You don’t have to be a very big yeti to step on things. You just have to have a loud opinion. A strong view is relatively rare in corporate life. Those who have one often prevail.

4. Championing it to death: Hurray for this great idea! We’ll get to it next Tuesday!

5. Shooting the messenger: There are many, many organizations that actually punish the bearer of an idea that’s not generated by an ultra-senior executive. In such places it’s best not to have ideas at all. But that doesn’t stop people, does it?

Okay, I’ll admit it. This wasn’t a totally academic exercise. Last month a guy who works for me had a smart idea. I sent him to the proper part of the organization to get it underway. But now they’ve put it in a committee of some kind. I’m told that a report is coming soon.

Screw that. There’s one thing that eradicates this kind of nonsense: an angry senior officer. That’s me. I know who to talk to. Don’t worry. It won’t take them long to get the idea. 

A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.

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