Idea Antibodies – Do some organisation have an autonomic immune response that kills ideas?

Graphic: Laura Sorlava from a session with Dave Snowden

I’ve just met an old friend who told me they had moved jobs because the old organisation was ‘sucking the life out of them’. As an ‘ideas person’ they were fed up of constantly having their ideas; dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or worse, buried in bureaucracy. They were getting out before their spirit was crushed and they became one of the ‘sheep’. Sounds familiar?

With innovation and improvement (all fuelled by good ideas) being so high on the agenda it’s disappointing to hear this. Shouldn’t the ideas people be cherished and encouraged, not crushed and ridiculed?

Here are some ‘ideas’ about how ideas are killed off in organisations, suggesting that this might a very deeply seated behaviour. Could there be an evolutionary response that pushes people (and organisations) down the path of settling for ‘best practice’ and the status quo? Sub consciously are most of us are resisting new ideas as a type of autonomic response.

Blocking new ideas is an evolutionary trait. I touched on this in the post is best practice the enemy of innovation where I referenced an article, Innovation is not Best Practice by Alf Rehn from Manchester University. The article talks about us still being hunter gathers that rely upon the evolutionary advantages of sticking to best practice. To survive we know the ‘best’ place to catch Bison, the ‘best’ way to gather roots and berries and this is transferred into modern-day thinking. The majority of the time we stick to what we know. Established practice is what got us to where we are now, so why would we want to try out ideas that are new and potentially dangerous?


Mavericks and Accidents are a source of ideas. This is a point made by Dave Snowden in this video about the discovery of the method for measuring Longitude. Ideas generated by Mavericks are frequently ignored by the establishment for a long period of time, before they become accepted.

The role that established experts play in suppressing new ideas is significant. New ideas can represent an attack upon the power base of the experts (their expertise and knowledge) and the organisation. Dave used the analogy of ‘autonomic response’ by organisational ‘white blood cells’ killing ideas when he spoke at this event. Mavericks (like my friend) have a tough time in many organisations.

This quote by Frank Herbert from The Dune books (and films) might be from Science Fiction, but is does sum things up nicely, who want to appear inept?

Don’t Panic! Turning to what you might do about the organisational ‘autonomic immune response’ to get ideas accepted, here a few suggestions:

  • Pretend you’re not a Maverick. If the autonomic response doesn’t recognise you or your ideas as a threat, you might get past the white blood cell defences. This is quite a difficult position to achieve. There is always the risk you will ‘go native’, ‘get the life sucked out of you’, and become one of the sheep.
  • Use Immunosuppressant Agents. In the context of an organisation this might be strong leadership saying ‘all new ideas are welcome’. There are many examples of this working, but it takes time and commitment from the top.
  • Just Wait. It’s funny how once upon a time radical ideas, (for example using open source software) appear mainstream once the rest of the world catches up or overtakes the organisation.
  • Find a Host that accepts you. There are places that love ideas. For example Ricoh in Telford and other organisations who are Members of IdeasUK, a body which focussed on helping organisations to involve their staff in generating ideas and getting them implemented. The percentage of ideas being implemented in Ricoh was in excess of 80%, a fantastic example of an organisation that nurtures ideas and the people who come up with them.

So, what’s the PONT?

  • An autonomic response to killing ideas could be a deep-seated in some organisations. The causes could be evolutionary or expert driven.
  • Recognising the organisational level of ‘immunity to new ideas’ would be helpful before embarking upon any improvement programme that depends upon ideas.
  • Pick your tactics carefully to get around the immune response. Sometimes it might require finding a new ‘host’ organisation (like my friend).

Just one final thought, Zombie Organisations. Are these the places where the people who like to crush ideas need to move on to, or are the idea killing organisations actually already on their way to becoming zombified?

Disclaimer: I know this post might upset a few organisations that are good at nurturing ideas. Please let me know of your good work in the comments.

Picture source:  Graphic by Laura Sorlava of Created at this event with the Wales Audit Office,

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

24 Responses

  1. Lorna Prescott

    Great post, just picked up a link to it on twitter. I was having a related conversation with a colleague today after a staff ‘away day’ (afternoon workshop). We were thinking about ways that people restrict exploration, ideas and new thinking when they tell someone they manage that ‘it’s not your role to [insert topic that idea relates to]’. Thus job descriptions and job titles can facilitate restrictions – but if they were treated more fluidly they could encourage the development of new ideas. Which brings us back to organisational culture and leadership. Your thoughts around this are helpful to reflect on, thank you.

  2. johnpopham

    Great analysis Chris.

    I think a key factor in all this is systems which encourage the non-risk takers to rise to the top. Like your friend, I’ve had the life sucked out of me in organisations, I’ve also been chewed up and spat out by organisations. The people who get to the top tend to be the “safe pairs of hands”, the people who never rock the boat and don’t stick their necks out.

      1. johnpopham

        Yes, I think you are right in suggesting there is something about evolution and lack of risk-taking.

        But… I have worked in the past in structures which were evidently not working and actually producing outcomes antithetical to the needs of the users. In that situation, people are rewarded with better salaries and higher statuses for continuing to manage a bad system, and, in effect, making it worse, while those who try to point out where it is going wrong are pushed out.

  3. Great post, Chris. Lots of this rings true for many organisations. A quick jumble of thoughts from me:
    Sometimes it’s not the idea which is rejected, but the way it’s presented, particularly if the proponent appears to challenge the top leadership.

    Deploy different tactics according to the nature of the idea, for example:
    – if it could save money, approach the lead for that part of the business and talk to them directly, without challenging in public. If convinced, they might volunteer to take it forward
    – if it’s an innovation idea, encourage an ‘innovation workshop’ and contribute to it. Open questioning may help others come up with a similar, or better idea.
    – If it’s the idea which is important, allow others to think it was their idea in the first place, and encourage them (a sort of constructive Iago figure?)
    – empathise with the decision-makers, and use language they understand. Avoid tech jargon
    – ideas people also need sales, comms & marketing skills to spot the obstacles or blockers and adapt accordingly
    – timing can be very important. Pick the time when decision-makers are most likely to be receptive to ideas
    – persevere
    – if all of that fails, but you feel it’s still a good idea, move or start a new business

    1. Hi Mark and Chris
      In relation to this I listened to a great podcast on LDRLB with Heidi Grant Halvorson ( about a book called ‘Focus’, in which the authors suggest that:

      ‘Motivation … has two forms: focus on promotion or on prevention. People can either be “focused on what they already have, or on getting even more. Promotion focus is about maximising gains and avoiding missed opportunities. Prevention focus is about minimising losses, to keep things working”. …
      Once you understand that the world is divided into prevention and promotion, argue the authors, you know how to become an effective influencer.’

      Here’s a short article about the book: and here’s a short review of it from which I extracted the quote above:

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