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How To Deal With Idea Generators On Your Team That Think They (not the company) Should Own Their IP...

With your best people, there’s always a rub that emerges.

Who owns the idea?

Let me rephrase: You can have the best people that are just really good at making the trains run on time, and there’s tons of value in that. But the ones that have the most value are always the ones that are true idea generators.

Companies, departments and individual careers are built on great ideas. In my experience, about 5% of your workforce population has the ability to innovate in this way—to create ideas that have the potential to add value.

Along the way, something interesting happens. At first, these idea people are happy to share their ideas and get some credit for participating. Then, a change can occur.

Those idea generators get jaded about the company making money off their ideas.

Need an example? Take a look at this scene from Mad Men with Don Draper and his direct report, Peggy (email subscribers click through for the video):

Paraphrasing here:

Peggy: “You’re taking credit for my work!”

Draper: “Your job is to give me ideas. That’s what the money is for.”

Deep stuff. I’m writing about this because some of you have a highly creative team member who generates ideas, and you’re going to come to this crossroad. He/she is going to reach the boiling point and hit you with something similar (but probably not as direct) as what Peggy said.

At that point, you’re either going to be a hard ass, a coach or the thing you least want to be—a weakling.

Let’s break those choices down. Your star comes to you and claims in less than direct way that you’re stealing her ideas. Option one is easy—you pour another scotch like Draper and tell her that’s what the money is for.

A better play would to be a coach, right? You sit her down and start walking through the arc of her career, talking about the old times when you (young Draper) felt the same way, and suddenly, your consistent stream of ideas meant you were the natural choice to lead a creative team and yes, secure the financial rewards that come with being a partner.

That’s what is in store for her. But only if he/she stops bitching and understands she’s getting compensated for the training ground she’s currently privileged to be a part of.

Option 3 is the worst way to go. You coddle the star and ask her what she needs, tell her how valuable she is, etc. Which guarantees that the star will keep acting the same way.

Idea generators are rare. So rare that you have to be purposeful when they come to you and claim that the company is raking in the revenue from their ideas.

Play it too hard, and it’s dysfunctional. Play it soft and you’ll get walked on and probably create your own retention issue. As with all things in life, the truth is found in the middle.

I’ll close with a cautionary note. If you’re reading this and thinking you’re the idea generator, pause and think about that. Over 75% of the people who think they’re idea generators are really just people making the trains run on time in an efficient way.

Regardless of your career level or role, stop and spend 10 minutes today thinking about who in your company is a true generator of original ideas.

The list is shorter than you think. That’s what the money is for.



Solid advice. A tough line to walk with the big thinkers. Having said all that, the older I get the more I believe great ideas aren't that special. Maybe great ideas that keep your company rowing in the same direction, just ahead of the competition and the market, are special.

Rob Adams counsels in "A Good Hard Kick in the Ass" that if you look around and no one else has had your great idea, double check it for greatness. I like the folks that make the train run on time. But, that's me.


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