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Five Phrases That Kill Innovation

Five phrases of the risk-averse, the shortsighted and the narrow-minded that are meant to kill innovation.

Five Phrases That Kill Innovation

South Africa’s diversity and richness of cultures is a microcosm for Africa. With 11 official languages and strong historical influences from across the continent, Europe and Asia, the opportunities for unique perspectives and competing ideas are endless.


South Africa also presents an enormous opportunity to harness this diversity of experience and cultures to be an incubator of innovation, fresh thinking and new approaches, not only for the country, but for the continent.

As we foster a spirit of innovation and creativity in South Africa, we have found a common hurdle lurking in the shadows of boardrooms that is not unique to Africa. These are the phrases of the risk-averse, the shortsighted and the narrow-minded that are meant to kill innovation. Here are five of them:

1. “That is not us.”

The idea might not align with the company culture, business objectives or goals, but a statement that is as broad as the universe is hard to refute. We are not the same as we were in high school, and that’s more often than not a good thing. Why should we not look for ways to evolve our businesses?

2. “Barbara, Bob or Bruce wouldn’t approve this.”

Death by approval. Corollaries to this include, not being able to reach Barbara or not getting feedback from Bob. Innovation is reliant on the ability to take action. If the right people are not sitting in the room, perhaps it is not the right environment for innovation.

3. “Don’t waste your time on that.”

Every activity has an opportunity cost. Quantifying that cost is critical. What is also true is that some ideas can only be successfully and optimally executed when the environment best enables them. Does your organization have the right environment?

4. “That is too risky.”

Like opportunity costs, risks can be quantified. Some of the riskiest ventures have resulted in company/business shifts that have been vastly profitable. Most businesses remain average because they operate in a conservative manner and their risk analysis is often anti-innovation. Taking a flight involves risk, driving a motor vehicle involves risk, leaving the office involves risk but we manage these risks for business. Shouldn’t we be asking, “Is it risky enough?”


5. “Legal won’t allow us.”

The legal department was not established to innovate – it exists solely to look for a legal pattern to follow. The question for any legal team is not, “can we…” it should always be, “why can’t we…” The difference in responses will be amazing.

Without question, for every good, innovative idea there are hundreds of bad ones. The challenge for every organization is ensuring the good are not tossed out with the bad. Imagine how a rubber yellow bracelet to cure cancer, the labeling of a soda can with the most popular names in a country or Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a split on two trucks would have been received in your most recent brainstorm.

Have a phrase that should be included? Please leave it in the comment section.

Tod Donhauser is the managing director of Edelman South Africa.