Etiquette Guide for “Idea People”

Many “idea people” in Corporate America view their employers as inefficient and broken. Like “Mary” in The Plight of "Idea People", these employees feel stuck and unable to contribute in the ways they want. They have ideas to fix the system but too often hold back due to real or perceived road blocks. In my last post, John Cohn of IBM encouraged idea people to push through or work around the constraints. But how do you do this respectfully, without stepping on toes?

In this post, you’ll meet marketing executive Max Holloway of the UK software firm WordTracker (photo on right). Max describes himself as a “hyper-creative” jazz musician who has “more ideas per second” than he knows what to do with. He learned the hard way how and when to present ideas, and he offers five pieces of advice for idea leaders (and the people who coach them). Enjoy!


Just because it’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea

Holloway: “In any business environment there are a finite number of ‘man hours.’ These are the hours a company has at its disposal to work on projects. This means there are a finite number of projects that can be acted upon and ultimately a finite number of ‘yes’ decisions a boss or top-level manager can make.”

Shoot from the hip and you may shoot yourself in the foot

Holloway: “Good ideas make us feel like we are contributing. And because we often view our own ideas with unrealistic optimism, it is tempting and very common for ‘idea guys’ to shoot out ideas as they have them. This clogs up your boss’ email, irritating the very people whose support you need. Remember, a lot of the evaluating has to be done by managers, and not the idea guys.”

Don’t expect others to volunteer for the work

Holloway: “Most people who have a great idea think it is so good that all the work is already done, or that everyone else will do the work. So the idea hangs there, and in a month’s time when someone says, ‘Hey Max, that great idea you had, how’s that going?’ You’ll most often hear, ‘Oh…I thought you guys were working on that?’ I have seen this ‘great idea with no follow through’ actually SINK two companies. Dead.”

Research your idea thoroughly before floating it with management

Holloway: “When an idea comes into your head, you need to evaluate seven things…

  1. Will this activity add value to the company (in terms of money or brand equity)?
  2. Will time spent on this add more value than time spent on other activities?
  3. Is it achievable?
  4. Does it fit your overall business direction, brand image and corporate culture?
  5. Does it already exist?
  6. Is there a demand for this idea?
  7. Can you quantify the ROI?

“If your research looks good and the idea is sound, then it’s time to write a plan.”

Think through the implementation steps

In some cases, an employee will not have enough background knowledge to understand the implementation requirements. But a good plan boosts the chances that management will be receptive to a new idea. So, get help if you need it.

Holloway: “A solid plan needs the following elements…

  1. Outline the idea in a paragraph.
  2. Explain step by step what’s needed to actualize the idea.
  3. For each step, list the non-personnel resources needed to achieve the goal.
  4. For each step, list the people needed for accomplishing the work and how long you think it will take them.
  5. Define your milestones for entire project. Clearly identify how you will know when each step is complete such that you are ready to move on to the next step.
  6. Describe the expected outcome of your idea, providing numbers where possible.
  7. Discuss how you will know the plan has been actualized.

“A plan with these elements provides a crystal clear outline for your boss. It is easier to critique the idea, amend it and ask questions about it. Once revised and approved, the plan serves as a project road map.”


Managers: Is your inbox flooded with shoot-from-the-hip ideas? Would you be more receptive to new ideas if your employees followed Max’s advice?

Idea people: If you regularly follow Max’s advice and still feel shut down, it’s time for a frank talk with your manager or HR. What’s the road block? Is it something you are doing? Or is it a corporate culture issue? If the latter, can you be a catalyst for change? Or is it time to find a new gig?


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


Another helpful resource:

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