May
06

The Plight of “Idea People”

by  Leigh Steere  |  Career Development

“Idea people” constantly scan the environment inside and outside their organizations for product ideas and new ways of doing things. They don’t consciously do this. It just happens. For them, operating in this way is as natural and essential as drinking water.

Idea people gravitate toward all things new and have little patience for inefficient processes and corporate silos. They can live in any department at any level of any organization. They can be any age, any color, male or female. To you as a manager, they may represent a breath of fresh air in your department or a colossal thorn in your side. Regardless of how you feel, idea people may be the key to your organization’s future. The question is…how are you engaging them today?

If you listen to National Public Radio, you’ve probably heard of StoryCorps. It’s a nonprofit that invites Americans to share and preserve important stories from their lives. In a similar vein, I invited idea people to share some of their experiences and observations of the corporate world. My next few posts will feature their input. My goal is to provide vital food for thought and inspire action where needed.

Let’s start with “Mary.” That’s not her real name but these are her words.

In-house counsel discarded

“I am an attorney for one of the largest insurance carriers in the country. I want to pull my hair out at the inefficiencies that occur because no one wants to implement a fresh idea or try something new. I don’t even know where to begin with my frustrations. Let me share three ideas I brought up to my company to save money and help us work more efficiently. All three were rejected.

“Our claims department asks for certain information on a routine basis. Our case management system has some limitations and prevents us from being able to provide the requested numbers. I suggested inputting the information into an Excel spreadsheet.  Excel could perform the needed tabulations so we could serve our client. Why should I even need to ask permission to implement something this straightforward?

“I suggested hiring law students as law clerks to handle some of the routine paperwork attorneys have to do. Such a program would let students build skills that will help them get jobs in this struggling economy. Our attorneys would be able to handle more cases, reducing the overall number of cases that need to be referred to expensive outside counsel.

“When I proposed this, my manager thought it was a great idea. But the insurance company did not want to pay for the extra computers that interns would require. We even came up with a very conservative estimate of $90,000 per year of savings for every intern hired. I volunteered to train them and be in charge of the program (and asked for no additional compensation…I saw it as a resume builder). I guess an extra $500 for a computer is just too much money.

“I suggested a monthly brainstorming session among the attorneys to discuss issues of the law or rulings that have created difficulty. The goal? To come up with better ways to defend the carrier and litigate our cases.

“These are not far-out, whacky ideas. They are easy and inexpensive to implement. They solve an existing business problem. You’d think we could just implement these without a complex permission process.

“I have never seen a company that celebrates mediocrity and the ‘sheep’ mentality like this one. I’ve stopped contributing new ideas. I even try to stop myself from thinking of innovative solutions, because I know it will only lead to more frustration. Do you know any companies looking for a bright, energetic legal professional with PR experience?”

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CEOs: Do your corporate processes support or frustrate idea people? Do you know the answer with certainty?

Managers: Do you have anyone like this on your team? When you think about them, do you smile or cringe? Why? Be honest.

Frustrated idea people: I hope you’ll add your stories below.

Wildly happy idea people: My next post will be for you. Stay tuned…

Note: Idea people need a manager who can Relate and Require effectively. Do you? Find out via the free assessment at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com.

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Articles By leigh-steere
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What People Are Saying

Deborah Costello  |  06 May 2011  |  Reply

Leigh,

Do you think this is just a matter of not understanding or ignoring the strengths of idea people? Or is it that change is too hard. Everything is going so well. Why rock the boat?

I work with many different kinds of people, and it is clear that some are visionary, others are detail oriented, some think rules are general guidelines while other follow them to the letter. Some play well with their collegues, others are confrontational or work best alone. Some of these strengths fit well into the mission of our school while others create problems (maybe eopportunities?)

There is definitely a role being played by overall leadership and by those making decisions (not necessarily the same people). What can leaders do to address this issue more effectively?

Leigh Steere  |  06 May 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for your questions, Deborah. Some people prefer not to rock the boat. The status quo feels comfortable and safe. But I think the comment I made yesterday about “difference” is at play here, too. People have a variety of work styles and communication styles. We tend to gravitate (unconsciously, I think) toward the people who are most like us. My next post includes comments from a wildly happy idea person. He shared the term “wild duck” to describe some idea people and said organizations need to find ways to embrace their wild ducks. Unfortunately, I think too many organizations shoot those ducks or ask them to relocate.

Dr. Marlene Caroselli  |  07 May 2011  |  Reply

Dr. W. Edwards Deming noted that “the greatest losses are unknown and unknowable.” When a person like you becomes so frustrated that he or she no longer makes suggestions, the firm is losing in ways they cannot even begin to calculate. You have only two choice beyond non-involvement: wait until some shift occurs. It may be a new boss, a merger, perhaps even your promotion. The second choice is to continue proposing ideas on a periodic basis. Amuse yourself: try different time, different techniques, different choices of words. You may even consider approaching your boss as a team. There’s undeniable strength in numbers.

Leigh Steere  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

Marlene, I forwarded your comment to the real “Mary” and invited her to join the discussion here. I particularly like your thought of proposing ideas as a team. A team can help “vet” an idea and work with the originator to fine tune it. Since each team member brings a unique perspective to the dialogue, the final presentation to management is likely to be more balanced and hard-hitting than what an individual can deliver alone.

Timothy Thomas  |  07 May 2011  |  Reply

I am a person who was perpetually frustrated in the workplace, where my processes and methods were often misconstrued as disobedience, insubordination and insolence. It was very vexing, as I am extremely personable, effective, educated and well liked, especially by peers. Occasionally I would be reassigned to “special projects.” In corporations, “special projects” is synonymous with “exit door.”

Finally I set out on my own and within 24 months I had replaced my salary offering only the best of my talents to several employers while actually working for myself. When I worked for one place, there was often resentment that I seemed to “cherry pick” projects and avoided projects that had high likelihood of failure or that were going to be a long slog that I knew I lacked the patience for.

I found it remarkable that the same skills that have brought me fortune as a consultant were keeping my “steady job” in constant jeopardy.

Leigh Steere  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

Timothy, thanks for sharing your story here. I think managers and HR folks need to reflect on what you’ve said. Even if an idea person is stepping on toes by pushing too hard, what is the correct response? To apply labels like “disobedient” and “insubordinate” (or “unfocused” and “undisciplined”)? Or to engage in self-reflection and ask, “Why is this person getting under my skin? Do I need to be more open? Am I being intolerant, because this person is so different from me? Can our company benefit from this person’s thinking–and I just need to help this individual find a more effective way to package and present new ideas in our organizational culture? It’s sad and expensive when employers lose idea leaders in the manner you described.

Tony Latimer,MCC  |  08 May 2011  |  Reply

Thoughts inspired by Deborah’s posted comment. In the last remake of Mutiny On The Bounty there was a scene where all was going well. Weather was clear, sky was blue and a brisk wind was moving the ship forward. The second in command and his crew were happily going about their routine work. The captain, Bligh, was standing on the upper deck. Apparently doing nothing. Suddenly he turned to his second in command and ordered the sails to be brought in. A lot of work on a full sailing ship, particularly if it turned out to be a wrong choice and they had to be put out again.

The deputy objected strongly, the crew started to mutter (Blight was after all a bit of an autocrat and didn’t generally win popularity contests with his crew). After waiting for a few minutes, Bligh snarled somewhat, then stepped back and bowed to his deputy’s view. The order was rescinded. The captain turned and went down to his cabin. Within moments the sky turned black and as if from nowhere a storm arose. Of such ferocity that if the sails were not rapidly brought in, the ship would be in serious danger. A lot of frantic hard work ensued under very difficult conditions.

On our leadership courses we start by teaching our Leadership Behaviors model, which categorizes everything a leader should do into just three areas. The third area we introduce as “Do Nothing”. Of course this generates some humor and the natural reaction of “yeah, right. As if I have time to do nothing!”. We introduce it this way deliberately to generate this reaction, then explain that what we really mean is that a leader, at any level in the organization, has to spend a certain amount of time thinking. Smelling the horizon. Matching patterns in their brain. Considering, even though all is well today, what may be coming next. Speculating on what the organization might need from their unit a week, a month, a year from now. Observing and listening to what is happening amongst the crew. Did someone making a minor adjustment to a sail just have to put a slightly different effort in? Was that caused by a minor wind pattern change that might herald a coming storm?

And all this is observing and thinking that takes time. So compared to how you currently spend time as a busy firefighting problem solving manager; you need to be able to free some of your current time to watch, listen and think.

Then the ideas being generated within the organization can be valuable inputs.

So maybe the inhibitor to leaders giving due consideration to the idea generators is just a factor of the lack of Do Nothing time.

Leigh Steere  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

Great story, Tony. Managers: how do you respond when an employee recommends “pulling in the sails?” Do you probe for and seriously consider the employee’s reasons why? Or is your gut reaction to dismiss the recommendation, because it is inconvenient or the employee’s proofs don’t meet your “show me” criteria? What are you doing to proactively predict storms? Do you just wait for dark clouds and big waves before choosing a course of action?

Donna Wetterstrand  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

When idea generators are continually receiving “no”, sometimes shifting focus from the outer situation to the inner process can bring unexpected change. In the above example, she might consider tweaking her presentation and/or examining her hidden assumptions about lawyers and creativity in general. It’s not a stretch to guess that she might see lawyers (who are TRAINED into focusing on precedent) as conservative rather than innovative. She might have to be very deliberate about finding “evidence” in her world that lawyers can be creative and open to innovation; yet, the more evidence she collects, the softer her perceptual position becomes.

Sometimes the only power a creative innovator can have is the power to get creative with your own perception of the situation. That way, you aren’t locked into a one-dimensional definition of the relationship between you and the “other.” The question “how can I make them more receptive to change?” becomes “how can I continue to exercise my creativity?”

This is such a valuable shift! It increases your own sense of personal power and can have tangible and unexpected real-world results.

Leigh Steere  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

Donna, I am forwarding your comment to “Mary.” You’re right. Often, we can’t change the system, but we can change our own perspective. Thanks for this great reminder.

Dr. Marlene Caroselli  |  09 May 2011  |  Reply

The parallel to Timothy’s story was told decades ago by management guru Tom Peters, who was fired from McKinsey and Company for showing up at the offices in less-than-professional attire. Peters is the man who avers, “Every organization should have at least one weirdo on staff.” He’s also the man who assures the freethinking TImothys of our world that “if you have gone a whole week without being disobedient, you are doing your organization and yourself a disservice.” Alas, corporate America doesn’t always appreciate the upstarts who ask questions. One final Timothy-inspired story; this, the story of how CareerTrak was founded. Jeff Salzman. After proposing an idea once at a staff meeting, his boss replied, “Jeff that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” (It was also the last thing he heard because Jeff, like our Timothy, took his considerable talents elsewhere. I say, “Vive les penseurs-libre!”

Timothy Thomas  |  10 May 2011  |  Reply

I love Tom Peters and his consciousness-raising and challenging ideas, so that is truly a compliment. I work in the Seattle area which suffers from the institutional pathologies of two major companies, Boeing and Microsoft.
There is something about “the Microsoft way” in general that is in opposition to where I am oriented, as many a Microsofter has shared an Russian proverb (which I paraphrase): “People are Problems, No Person, No Problem.”
The underlying message is that individuals are disposable and the result is a groupthink that gives us liability proof EULA’s and nearly unusable User Interfaces for products we barely need. In a society where culpability rolls down to the least well defended I think of another proverb that sadly rings true- “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
We are incentivized to avoid attention, and by extension, blame. I moved my innovation out of house so if my ideas don’t work, the purchaser can just stop paying my invoices. I can’t seem to lose a job now.

Mike Henry  |  11 May 2011  | 

Timothy, I think most in this forum agree with you that people aren’t disposable. I’ve also found that generally organizations don’t have opinions, they simply have people who do. I think the people who have shared that proverb with you should either leave, like you seem to have done, or complain about it to someone who can do something about it, like their manager.

In contrast too, I think we solve the problem not by focusing on the problem or the consequences, but by focusing on the solution. Would you care to share about organizations that appreciate and empower their people? Do you know of any companies who attract talent? In my local area, there are a couple of large employers, like Bama Companies and QuikTrip who consistently win awards for how they treat their people and the positive contribution they make to the area. For me, I tend to drive in the direction of my focus. So I like to focus on those that do things well.

Dr. Marlene Caroselli  |  10 May 2011  |  Reply

Don’t lose your job, Timothy. But don’t lose your creative inclination either. Take your ideas outside the workplace. There are so many places seeking (and willing to pay for) creative solutions.
To illustrate, my 11-year-old niece won $10,000 for her idea about water conservation. And my own mother (eighth-grade education only) was awarded $500 for submitting ideas re: how to recycle plastic.

Steve Frechette  |  11 May 2011  |  Reply

The issue with idea people (and I am one of them) is that they have the ability to create a solution within in their own minds; to actually see it in action or operation providing utility and benefits. It is a skill as difficult as it is rare. No matter how great the idea, a conventional mindset (80% of all managers in the world) will not act upon it. Why? Simple. It induces some component of fear. Fear is created anytime the mind cannot wrap itself around an idea. Tell someone 1+1 = 2 and they’ll agree. Tell them 1+1 can also equal 3 and they’ll hesitate. Fear. The brain simply cannot suspend prior logic. It is like drinking 10 gallons of water. The conventional manager’s brain cannot do it one sitting. It requires a “glass by glass” approach. If you are willing to give your manager a glass of water each day, you will eventually convince them. Who has the patience for this? Business moves way too fast. The most innovative companies understand this…led by post-convention thinkers who drink 10 gallons a day. I’d suggest hooking up with one.

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