How to kill an idea (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Due to travel, I recently had to miss my 30th high school reunion. The bad news was not seeing old friends. The worse news was not finding out who has aged more than I have (everyone, I presume).

The good news? Not having to relive embarrassing moments, like the time I asked a girl to the homecoming dance, and she answered, “Can I let you know?”

Regrettably, I failed to say, “Sorry, but you have to take your chances.” Instead, nonplussed by the one answer I hadn’t anticipated, I handled the situation the way an employee should handle a manager who gives this response to a request or suggestion: I said, “When?”

Want to kill an idea? The wrong way is to delay a decision. Lots of managers use this technique, but all it does is kill enthusiasm. The idea, like an old tuna sandwich that’s fallen behind the desk, persists.

If you’re a manager and want to kill an idea, the right technique is to present an unanswerable argument. Not an unassailable one. That’s different.

One of the best unanswerable arguments is, “That’s the same as x, and we already tried that.” For example, imagine an employee proposes implementing XML-based supply-chain integration. You might answer, “That’s really the same thing as EDI, and we tried that several years ago. The project died – it turned out to be too complicated and too expensive.”

Your employee is now helpless, becalmed in a Sargasso Sea of ennui. Your argument is, of course, nonsense — “We failed to make it work,” does not equate to “It won’t work,” and you’ve waved off the significance of improved technology. That’s okay – your goal was to kill the idea, and once you force the discussion into specific details you have the moral high ground, because as a manager you aren’t supposed to worry about those.

IS Survivalist Joseph Martin provided another excellent idea killer: The Concerns Argument. It’s simple to use and applies to a wide variety of situations. Whatever the suggestion, simply say, “I have concerns about that.”

To the inescapable, “What are they?” you respond, “I’ve heard there are issues with it.”

What issues? “A lot of people have concerns.” Who? “Lots of people.” Such as? “I can’t betray a confidence.” What are their issues? “I’ve read about several.” But what were they exactly? “I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember they seemed pretty substantial.”

The Concerns Argument is an effective variant of the old, “I think this needs more analysis,” routine, but is superior because it doesn’t lead to action.

You need techniques to kill initiative. After all, if your staff is thinking of new ideas, they aren’t focusing on their jobs. Even worse, some might end up looking way too good and get hired into other roles, and then you’ll have to replace them.

Or, if you prefer to be a good manager … avoid these techniques.