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Don’t steal my idea!

10 tips to help you grow (& get credit for) your next brainchild

Office-Politics animated movie by the creative team: Franke James, Bill James, Steve Whitehouse, Pirate Radio

Stealing Ideas cartoon

Imagine what your office would be like if everyone walked around with big signs saying, “Don’t steal my idea!”

It would be laughable, pathetic — and of course it wouldn’t work. That ridiculous image came to mind when Globe and Mail reporter Dave McGinn, called me up for a story about co-workers ripping off ideas. Companies would grind to a halt if no one was willing to share their thoughts. So what can we do to create an environment where people will see that sharing their ideas is actually their greatest source of power?

As you might suspect, the problem of coworkers stealing ideas is a common fear and occurrence. We’ve heard the tales of woe for many years — in fact the very first letter Office-Politics replied to in 2002 was on this topic. Dr. John Burton wrote,

“The dilemma is that the office environment works best when there is a free flow of ideas. I may be the first to think of a particular new product or process, but three other people may come up with successive variations that improve on my idea, and in the end who can say which of us came up with “the idea” that proved to be of benefit to the company? Employers count on their employees to engage in this type of creativity and smart corporations ensure that everyone who participates is recognized.”


Of course, it is only human nature to want credit for our ideas. So what can we do to get credit, while still keeping our employer happy? Here are ten tips to help you grow (and get credit for) your next brainchild…

1. Your company owns your brainchild.
Ouch! Many people are shocked when they hear that fact. Ideas are considered “Intellectual Property”, and unless otherwise specified in your employment contract, you don’t own your work-related ideas. You can’t register them as a trademark, copyright them, or patent them (without facing a legal battle from your employer). Why is that fair? Because your company is paying you a salary for your brainpower.

Once you make the mental shift from “That’s MY idea” to “That’s my company’s idea” you may find it feels REALLY good, and you’re able to share ideas more freely because you understand their value. I’ll explain below…

2. Ideas are Power. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
“Ideas are power.” AND: “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” How can both those statements be true? Companies pay staff hoping that they’ll generate great ideas, so it’s only natural to think that by holding onto ideas tightly you’ll increase your power. But it doesn’t work that way.

The more you try to hold onto your ideas to assert your brilliance, the more petty you’ll appear to your colleagues — and your boss. Recognize that no one holds a patent on great ideas. Anyone can have them, from the shop floor up to the CEO’s office. In my role as a communications designer, I’ve facilitated many creative vision sessions where the goal is to generate creative ideas and help them to grow. In the space of a few hours, you can literally see an idea grow from a tiny seed, to a big, exciting idea just waiting to be taken to market. But those ideas don’t spring out of anyone’s mind fully formed. They grow organically as everyone in the meeting contributes. (See #5.)

“Ideas are a dime a dozen.” Ideas are worth nothing until they’re developed, fleshed out and hopefully — brilliantly executed. Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Whenever I feel a twinge of possessiveness for an idea I remember that saying. To make an idea grow, requires 99% perspiration — and so if someone steals “my” idea they’ll have a lot of sweat ahead of them.

3. Be identified as the “Go-to person” for ideas.
You are far better off to be identified as the “Go-to person” for ideas, than the one who jealously hoards ideas. Share your ideas freely. Let other people contribute to them and help grow them. Become known as a clever, innovative thinker who generates new ideas — and helps others grow and improve their ideas. You will be a far more valuable employee that way, and someone that others will want on their team. (Read Dr. Edward de Bono’s books for tips on creative and lateral thinking techniques.)

4. Put your handprints on your ideas.
How do you “put your handprints on your ideas”? It’s a term that Office-Politics Adviser Rick Brandon uses frequently. Essentially it means sharing your idea by talking about it, emailing it to others, documenting it in company memos – the more ways you can publicize your idea, the better your chances are of getting credit for it — and seeing it grow into something you’re proud of. Also — while this may seem counter-intuitive – one of the best ways to leave your handprint, is to acknowledge that others have contributed to it…. (see #6)

5. Most ideas are not born perfect.
Ideas require development. Think about this: How many ideas can you point to that are the product of one single person, and emerged fully formed and perfect? Not many. Most ideas are improved upon through input from other people. Growing ideas is an iterative process. The seed of a brilliant idea grows bigger as each person adds their own creative juice to it.

6. Share the limelight.
Going back to that “handprint” concept again, acknowledging that others have contributed to the idea – and helped it grow, is very smart on a number of levels. It reinforces that you are the type of person that is so confident of your own intelligence and your abilities that you invite other people to help your idea to grow. It sends a message to your boss that you are a team-player who understands that ideas are the lifeblood of the company, and that you have the company’s best-interests in mind – not just yours. Plus you’ll have built-in support from colleagues who are “contributors” to the idea. They can help you to stick-handle it through the system.

If all this sounds good – but you still have doubts, think of any popular TV show. Think of how many people are involved in its creation — scriptwriters, producers, actors, camera people, set designers, etc. Everyone plays a role and contributes to its success. If you met someone who claimed sole responsibility, you’d immediately think they were egomaniacs – and stupid. Share the glory. There’s lots to go around when you win an Emmy or an Oscar. (Read this letter from a TV show writer.)

7. Be “Open Source” software
Imagine yourself as “Open Source” software versus “proprietary” software. Open Source’s strength is that many people contribute to the growth and refinement of it. It’s a breeding ground for people to share ideas. Credit is shared, and tracked as the software evolves. And as your contribution to it grows you will gain power and recognition in the community.

Tips #8, 9 and 10 are from Dr. John Burton’s 2002 letter, on how you can contribute ideas, help your company be more successful, and ensure that you get recognized (and maybe promoted)…

8. Speak up!
Make sure the Boss hears your ideas at meetings, in emails, in memos — establish yourself as a constant “source” of bright thinking and good ideas within your team.

9. Work Hard.
Be seen as the person on the team that always does their homework. Never come to a meeting unprepared. Think through what the agenda is, and add your insights and ideas, in front of everyone. You’ll get recognized.

10. Push yourself to the front.
That doesn’t mean you have to be “in-their-face”, but it does mean that you should seek out opportunities where you can show your abilities to best advantage. (eg. trade shows, trade publications, special committees) In the long term, wise companies will ensure that all employees who participate in the creation of new ideas are recognized. New ideas are one of the engines of economic growth after all.

Good luck! Become known as an idea-generator and you’ll discover the real power you hold.

Franke James


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com, and the author/inventor of Dear Office-Politics: the game everyone plays. In addition to answering letters sent into the site, Franke often writes book reviews and collaborates with book authors on replies, for example: Robert Sutton, Dan Pink, Amy Sutherland. Franke brings 20 years of real-world business experience to her role as an adviser on OfficePolitics.com… Since 2002, Franke has been quoted and featured in print, radio and TV on the topic of office-politics by the New York Times, Chatelaine Magazine (December 2009), Inc. Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Job Postings Magazine, CBC Radio, CTV News and other media. Franke’s bio continues

  1. 4 Answers to “Don’t steal my idea!”

  2. Very important issue! I have seen the effects of secrecy happen in a company where employees got rewarded (monetary) if they would successfully submit a patent. The effect was that they did not want to share their ideas with colleagues (and, see your point 5, not improve the idea), and potentially submit a suboptimal idea to the patent office.

    By Rob Hooft on Nov 17, 2009

  3. This literally just happened to me! I’m shocked! I had prepared a strategy proposal for my boss (a first time business woman). I shared my document with a team member who was working part-time as a consultant — I wanted to get her support so we could convince my boss together of a change in direction. She completely stole my thunder and presented the crux of the argument as her own. And I might have thought this was not premeditated except she actually interrupted as I was about to present my thoughts and just stated my conclusion! Maybe I made a mistake by showing her my deck, but I can’t believe someone who was not even 100% committed to the company would have much to gain from that. She had more experience than me and well-spoken. She had no need to steal my idea to promote herself. Thoughts?

    By meela on Feb 6, 2010

  4. Same thing happened to me, twice yet I’m studying Graphic Design.
    All you can do is play along with it, go back to square one or elaborate on NEW or other existing ideas.
    It isn’t fun, it gives you the sh*ts. But making a deal about it will crumble anything you put forward. It shows they can’t think for themselves, they will probably get stuck along the way, and ask you for help or your opinion, but there isn’t much you can do.

    Sometimes I find when I’m stuck for ideas I help others push their ideas forward, to get my thinking to move forward and past square one, then they help me elaborate on mine.
    It’s not fun when they do it, but just let them do it, you will then see the problem areas in it and if you where to do it how to fix it, but just leave them to run with your idea. If they ask you for help, give it but don’t be too helpful unless you will receive credit for it too.

    By Graphic Designer on Mar 1, 2010

  5. Interesting article, I am an engineer for a big fortune five hundred company and I worked for this incompetent project manager on a research project while I did some of my best work on it. It did not benefit my career. I didn’t really trust the project manager because there was no plausible reason why he would have achieved his position with his lack of skill.
    This guy would literally make stuff up inventing his own physics when talking to his superiors around his subordinates to prove a subordinate wrong, but when around subject matter experts of superior stature he would clam up and always try to get me or someone else to take up the discussion claiming a fear of public speaking.
    Well one day we where in a meeting and his supervisor was present, we were talking about some of the concepts we were going to go forward with and I mentioned one of the concepts I had come up with and his supervisor asked him if he had come up with it. I gave him a cold look because I had just caught on.
    During the conversation his supervisor discovered a half a dozen ideas he had taken from me. It was quite entertaining for me, but nothing changed, this incompetent clown is still in his position ordering and stealing from his inferiors of superior skill.
    Why? Because he is a master of flattery and when a insecure technically inept baby-boomer manager is confronted with this, it will win out against productivity and hard work every time.
    Don’t get me wrong, I expect gen-x and y will become progressively worse until eventually we will drop to a third world standard of living and from the ashes perhaps a creature worthy of existence will emerge.

    By Chris on Jul 18, 2011

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