name them and shame them


I knew a guy in Toronto who was a one-man wrecking crew when it came to creativity.

We were obliged to include this guy in the “brain storm” but he could be relied upon to introduce the forces of entropy to every debate. His techniques were many and highly effective: questioning every term, doubting every premise, refusing every potential moment of departure. This guy was the dark star, the collapsing sun, of idea generation.

We all know people like this. We have all been obliged to work with him. We have all suffered his intellectual predations.

The question is “why?” What’s he doing here? Why does the corporation, the academy, the organization put him with him? Why do we not have permission to murder him in his cubicle?

One chilling possibility comes in a splendid comment from Steve Postrel. Steve suggests that all corporations generate more ideas than they can possibly use. Perhaps, we might surmise, they need Oak trees that poison the ground around them. Say it ain’t so. Surely corporations need all the good ideas they can get. And surely those of us who work for them find our real joy in thinking these up. Let’s hope it’s not an Oak tree effect.

The trouble with these guys (and gals) is that once they get in to a corporation they begin to use its resources to defend themselves against reproach. They know they are without talent, but they can spot it in others. And then they dedicate their careers to making sure that opportunities for comparison are few and far between. Thus does bad drive out good.

Here’s the really weird thing. We all know these people exist. We all know what they look like. We all know the damage they create. But we do not have a term with which to call them, a diagnostic with which to identify them, or a HR method of with which to extract them.

When are we going to name the elephant? How much longer may these enemies of the state continue to operate with impunity? I would be grateful for comments that offer names for the elephant. We need to arm those people sitting in committee meetings with a term that can be whispered in the hall way, written on notes, smsed to colleagues and otherwise pressed into service. Only thus can we hope to name them and shame them.

Cribbing from Hollywood, I wondered if we could do something with Gods and monsters. We would of course be the Gods. They would just as evidently be the monsters. Dark star, as above, might work. Anti-matterers? Anti-mutterers? Idea jammers. Right wankers? For God sake, help me.


Postrel, Steve. 2004. Last comment. Here

13 thoughts on “name them and shame them

  1. Steve Portigal

    “Steve [Postrel] suggests that all corporations generate more ideas than they can possibly use…Surely corporations need all the good ideas they can get.”

    I don’t know the source of Steve’s original suggestion, but as you quote it, there’s a difference between “ideas” and “good ideas.” And I’m NOT just being picky – what I’ve seen in these situations is an oft-paralyzing quantity of ideas that feel real original and fresh to those inside the corporate (hey – what if your alarm clock knew if it was bad traffic and could wake you up earlier? what if the fridge knew when the milk was going bad and could automatically warn you and order more? What if we make the fridge the message center of the home version 2.0 by putting a video screen on it) but are trite and obvious and flawed (not to mention off-strategy) for many broader reasons.

    What I find in consulting situations is that they have no idea what to do, and suggesting another “idea” isn’t going to help. The benefit seems to when there’s some motivation or evaluation criteria defined – say, oh I dunno, something that comes from a new understanding of their customer?

    And yet good ideas have many more hurdles to overcome even if they can be commonly accepted as good ideas.

    I haven’t encountered the particular form of sabotage you describe, but I think I know the general organizational symptoms that harbor such individuals – they may articulate the fear of varying from the shaky status quo – the fear that everyone is feeling. They aren’t bought into the brainstorming/cultural/creative venture to begin with because it may lead to a new belief which will cut at the fear they feel – only it’s not fear in their minds, it’s the responsibility to protect and maintain and not KILL the success they’ve had so far.

    But I ramble.

  2. mike shupp

    “Wally” might do the job….

    FWIW, it’s been known for well over 30 years that most corporations have more good ideas floating around than can ever be implemented.

    There used to be a vast literature on the subject of innovation and spreading R&D results around; my general impression is this isn’t something anyone wants to think about anymore, since the modern idea is that innovation is supposed to be purposefully directed by managment (“targeted”) rather than emerging willy-nilly from researchers doing their own thing.

    –mike shupp

  3. debbie

    ah, Grant…I feel your pain.

    I have a theory about the anti-matterers, idea wankers and right wankers. I think there are two kinds of people in the world: Generators and Drains. Generators are the inspiration, the creators, the idealists, the energetic magicians that can make something out of nothing. The Drains are the ones that suck the life out of any optimism–and the soul out of the generators.


    They should just be stopped.

  4. Rob

    The term exists. It is “critic”.

    Properly used, these people tease out the best ideas from amongst the myriad. Improperly used, they drop a shroud on anything new.

    They are death to a brain storming session, but gold in testing competing ideas.

    We all carry a critic inside us. A small voice that says what we do or say is not good enough. The creative individual has tamed this voice, and keeps it in its proper place.

    The key to handling the critic is to structure the process. No questioning or criticism is allowed during brainstorming.

  5. Colin


    Companies generate all kinds of ideas, constantly and continuously. But there are several problems here. First, most ideas don’t work because the originator doesn’t have sufficient grasp of the overall situation in which the idea is to be applied. Second, organizations cannot try to pursue every good idea they may have because of a lack of focus in actually bringing something to a successful completion.

    So no, companies don’t need every good idea that comes along; they need good ideas that work and that will work for them.

    So what are you suggesting? That those in an organization who suggest drawbacks to harebrained notions be suppressed? This is a sure recipe for organizational failure if I ever heard one.

    It may well be that the individual to which you refer is a talentless timeserver with the sole skill of destroying the ideas of others. Your remedy will perhaps fix this problem by certainly creating a worse one. You should know better than to establish general principles from anecdotal examples. Ever hear of a concept called babies and bathwater?

  6. Scott McArthur

    I offer you the term : Negativists ™

    I have seen the situation you describe. A University bureaucracy has a particularily high quotient of these people. What happens is that all the other people in the department have to work harder to get the job done. Like a lung with half the cells missing. The rest of the aeoli have to struggle.

    But really this is not a problem of essense, of good versus evil. It is a problem of management. Good management will place the creatives where they belong and the sceptics where they belong and fire the truly flaky and the truly negativist.

    After all, an enterprise of ultra-creatives can self destruct too. There were some great articles in Fortune about how Enron was staffed by the brightest management consultants from McKinsey & Company and how their “pro-creative” policies led to a company were people worked at cross purposes, jettisoned their ethics and led to a massive destruction of wealth.

    Mangement, management, management. Mentality matters less when good management is in place. From Good to Great talks about this. Peter Drucker also talks about this.

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  8. Tom Guarriello

    Thinking about Spiro Agnew, for some reason and his delightful talent to turn a phrase. One of my favorites was, “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

    That got me going.

    So I thought, “well, these folks are both ‘nay-sayers’ and action-blockers.”

    So, how about “nay-blocks”; as in, “well, if it’s gonna work, we’ll have to figure out a way to get it past the nay-blocks.”

  9. Grant

    A couple of defenses of the nay sayer, and I agree that someone has to winnow once the harvest is in. But the people I am talking about how the effect of discouraging the harvest. Or, to switch the metaphor, of murdering new ideas in the cradle. Surely, this is always bad.

    Thank you Mike, for “Wallies.” It is diminishing it just the right way. Negativists, drains, nay-sayers, and nay bobs are good too. (Thank you, Debbie, Colin, Tom and Scott). Off line, I have received “speed bumbs” and “Alexanders.” Apparently, Alexander salted the earth so that nothing would grow. The file is still open. Thanks, Grant

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  11. steve

    I agree with both Rob and Steve Portigal. It’s all a matter of context. During brainstorming sessions, the internal editor/critic needs to be turned down to a low level because the whole point of the session is to produce divergent thinking. Most people need to lower their inhibitions at that point, and having a person carp and cavil like that is rude as well as unproductive. (By the way, I call such people “cadmium rods” because they absorb stimulating ideas and prevent creative chain reactions the way cadmium rods absorb neutrons in fission reactions.)

    At the very first winnowing point, however, long before product testing comes in (say, right after the brainstorming session), critical thiniking is essential. And as Mr. Portigal pointed out, sometimes the most useful and “creative” thing to come up with is a set of evaluation criteria or an argument that allows you to distinguish good from bad ideas. The carving-away part of the process is at least as important as the putting-in part, especially knowing what not to carve away.

  12. Mike

    ” We were obliged to include this guy in the “brain storm” but he could be relied upon to introduce the forces of entropy to every debate”

    Are you saying brainstorming is a kind of debate? This could be a problem. To have a good brainstorming session, you have not to criticize the ideas that are generated (you do that at the end). Maybe this guy doesn’t know that.

    I don’t see stop new ideas as inherently negative. It is negative when a good ideas is stopped. In the same way, getting new ideas is not inherently positive. It is so only when it’s a good idea.

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