Business Zombies: When Ideas Outlive Their Use

What happens when an idea outlives its usefulness?  What about ideas that do not change with the times?  One of my executive book clubs took on their own inventory of dead and dying ideas- or ones that should be removed from life support after reading and debating The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

Author Matt Miller, a Fortune magazine columnist, presents a number of ideas that are either (in his estimation) dead- whether the world knows it or not- as well as a group of forward looking assumptions that we should today be questioning.  Miller has a point of view that you can argue about.  But that was not the purpose of the debate.

The first hour was spent trying to determine how to recognize dead and dying ideas.  The only clear criteria was that any guiding principally behind what was an innovation more than 20 years ago should be examined closely.  The big example?  Health care.  Health care was tied to employment as the provider of insurance during the New Deal.  Never mind the heated debate about whether that is good or bad for business.  How about recognizing that while the process of selling, pricing and managing risk has not changed since that time, employment has- and big time.   When the idea was new, the vast majority of working people were at big stable companies (like General Motors?  Sorry, I could not resist!)  Today a meaningful percentage of workers are at small companies or are self-employed.   Insurance as an industry has done little to keep up with the changes.  And while the idea may be dead, the zombie of a payment and risk system refuses to fall.

A number of tools for scouting out dead ideas were floated until someone asked a completely different question.  “Finding them is not that hard.  What do we do about them when we do?  How do you kill off something that entrenched?”  This group of high potential executives dug into the process of change in their organization- a company that spent over $50 million on change projects last year with an average win rate (about 30%) for successful projects.  In the end, several took the idea further and will work to present ideas to the COO for improving the company hit rate on change projects.

When we start discussing books in this manner I never know where the discussions will go.  But I have learned to trust that given their head, a group of executives will learn to debate issues until they find something useful and put it to work.

  • Do you have animated zombies of innovation past lumbering around your company?  How do you spot ideas that have outlived their usefulness?
  • What are the most successful tools you have seen used to help lay those old ideas to rest and make space for something more vital?
  • What is the impact of keeping those old ideas on life support when they should be allowed to go?