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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The Advantages of Political Attack: III
- In workplace politics, attackers have significant advantages that explain, in part, their surprising
success rate. In this third part of our series on political attacks, we examine the psychological advantages
- A Critique of Criticism: II
- To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to,
and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- Suppressing Dissent: I
- In some groups, disagreeing with the majority, or disagreeing with the Leader, can be a personally expensive
act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.