Ever had those meetings or brainstorm sessions that were intended to reel in fresh new ideas? The actual session begins and many ideas already lose their fighting chance as someone lays one of these killer phrases:

  • "Let's form a committee on that..."
  • "We don't have the resources..."
  • "That'll never work..."
  • "We already tried that..."
  • "It's not proven..."
  • "That's a good idea, but..."
  • "That's impossible..."
  • "We can't do it that way..."
  • "No one does that..."
  • "We don't do it that way here..."
  • "Has it been done before?"
  • "Is it a best practice?"
  • "What does that even have to do with anything?"

Or someone goes: "Pfft, really? That's crazy."

The Origins of Killer Phrases

Charles "Chic" Thompson wrote a good definition on killer phrases in the R&D Innovator Volume 2:

Killer Phrase (Kil'er frāz) - n. 1. a knee-jerk response that squelches new ideas; most commonly uttered by a boss, parent or government official. 2. a threat to innovation.

While written almost 20 years ago (in 1993), the meaning and obstacles remain true today.

Killer phrases are a form of negative thinking that can derail the group's creative spirit. They lure people away from the realm of possibility (what might be) back into the realm of impossibility (status quo). New ideas are lined up extrajudicially and executed on the spot. Nevermind if all the facts or data aren't in yet and nevermind if circumstances might've changed since someone last checked.

They're not limited to a large corporation's R&D: they can be found in every type of organization, both in professional and personal environments. We've even used them on ourselves whenever we need to "talk ourselves" out of something.

The collateral damage can be long-standing. Sooner or later the organization's culture gets too toxic for creativity and people will be wired for one thing: fear.

Faith is lost in the process. People shut down. If pitching new ideas brings criticism or embarrassment, why try? And the only ideas that ever do emerge are the ones that are recycled and reanimated but tidied up to look new. They're based on safety and logic, but they're a far cry from being exciting. 

Why bother collaborating in groups for creative strategy?

The top reason is that no one knows everything. Many mission-related challenges aren't just a marketing problem or a technology problem. Instead, they're multi-dimensional which require expertise from various realms of thought. People with unique skills and insight must convene to sync their ideas together in order to design new solutions and new initiatives that create true impact.

So ignore the new business press that exaggerate the dangers of group collaboration. The fact is that you can have badly conducted "brainstorming" sessions just as you can have badly conducted meetings. 

Everyone in the group has a fragment or a piece to the puzzle — or challenge — that the organization is out to solve.  Each person has unique experiences and insights to bring the table. All of that remains locked away and buried deep.

Even if you don't feel yourself to be the "creative" type, here are some other "high-level" reasons why allowing creativity to flourish can benefit:

  • Get things done (real progress)
  • Break up organizational inertia and bottlenecks
  • Take ownership of new challenges and conflicts
  • Become more proactive than reactive
  • Finally move the mission forward with real progress

Where do we start?

While creativity implies creation and eventually action, many organizations need help in the first stages of ideation. Here are three easy killer phrase countermeasures to recalibrate your next meeting or brainstorm session.

1. Defer judgment during ideation

Not only should you permit the unrestricted divergence of ideas, but you should protect the creative spirit from the start. [Tweet this!]

Do this by encouraging everyone in the group to  practice deferral of judgment. As people diverge freely on new, wild, and radical ideas, ask them to hold back on judging and evaluating ideas until later. This includes judging each other's ideas. Assume that all ideas for now have equal value and deserve to be brought to the table.

Good judgement and evaluation based on sound criteria, not fear, is an essential part of the creative process (surprised?). Deferral of judgment takes work but it's a crucial cognitive prerequisite that must be practiced.

2. Replace the killer phrase

Once you've reached the stage for evaluation in your session, don't use killer phrases. Instead, if obstacles exist that block progress, ask "Why?" or "What's stopping us?" Once you've zeroed in on the possible obstacles, ask "How might we?" as in, "How might we overcome x so that we can accomplish y?" [Tweet this!]

This is vastly more effective because it prompts everyone to once again diverge on any ideas to surmount blockages to progress, rather than ending with a killer phrase that leaves no light for solutions.

3. Hang up a killer phrase poster

Try the idea of writing up and displaying a killer phrase poster. Write up the common killer phrases and turn that into an artifact you hang up on the wall for everyone to see everyday.

This is an open attempt to positively rewire people so that they can practice divergent thinking and deferral of judgment. 

And remember, rather than a killer phrase, ask why not? Or what's stopping us? And use that as a springboard to ask "How might we...?" to diverge on ways to surmount those obstacles.

Over to you

What was your experience with killer phrases? Can you come up with any other show stoppers that prevent you, or your group, from moving forward?

Leave your comments below.