The "What-a-Great-Idea!" Trap
by Rick Brenner
You just made a great suggestion at a meeting, and ended up with responsibility for implementing it. Not at all what you had in mind, but it's a trap you've fallen into before. How can you share your ideas without risk of getting even more work to do?
Of the many ways to stifle creativity, one is unsurpassed in effectiveness. I saw it once at a monthly staff meeting. As we plowed through the Open Issues list, Tim had a great idea, which he offered to us. The chair's response was "What a great idea, Tim! Why don't you work that out and report next month?"
Tim learned a lesson that day: don't ever mention your great ideas, especially not in meetings.
We've all made this "mistake" — you make a suggestion, and before you can say "Not Me!" you get volunteered to implement it. You weren't really offering to take on the task — you were just offering an insight that seemed helpful. And then you got stuck with the work.
This trap comes in other varieties. Let's suppose there's an unassigned task to be executed before you can do something else you've committed to. If you mention the unassigned task, it will probably be assigned to you. And if you say nothing, when you finally do explain why your work isn't even started yet, you might be tagged with "Why didn't you mention this before now?"
The problem isn't the offering of ideas — it's the opportunistic behavior of the team lead or chair. Ideas are the "seed corn" of projects. They're the source of all future solutions and inventions. Any chair who saddles the idea-creators with execution responsibility is actually "eating the seed corn." By creating discomfort for the people who offer ideas, the chair trains everyone not to offer ideas. So although the chair solves the immediate problem of finding someone to implement the idea, that solution creates an even bigger problem for the future — a shortage of ideas.
of all future
and inventionsWhat can you do if your team lead or your boss is one of these seed-corn eaters? How can you avoid what happened to Tim?
In the basic form, you preface your idea with a clear statement that you're offering the idea only, not the execution. For example, Tim could have said, "I have an idea for whoever is willing to take this on. I'm too overloaded to do it myself, but I'm willing to explain in more detail to whoever ends up doing this, if that fits for them and if that would be helpful." This creates a contract between Tim and the team — the team gets to hear the idea, with the understanding that Tim is too overloaded to actually execute the idea.
In writing this, I have one great fear — that someone will tell me I have to implement it. Sorry, I'm too overloaded to take that one on. I leave that to you. Top Next Issue
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