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“Are You Volunteering to Own It?”

brokenbulbI have heard this phrase way too often in my career. Someone submits a good idea in a meeting, and since there is no clear owner already in the organization, the person with the suggestion gets asked to implement it. I regret to admit that I have even on occasion done this to others in a meeting.

The first time I ever heard it used, it impressed me. How clever! What better way to make someone’s suggestion become a reality? Assign ownership to the person who had the idea as sort of a “put your money where your mouth is.”

But consider its effect on your organization’s culture. It only takes a couple “are you volunteering?” instances to train people to keep their good ideas to themselves. In most organizations, people with good ideas are likely already busy. They’re the ones who naturally have skin in the game. Can your organization really afford to stifle the free exchange of ideas?

You want an innovation culture–one in which great ideas come forth–make sure that people don’t get punished for sharing their ideas.

That’s my idea. Can I get you to volunteer for it?


6 Responses

  1. Yeah, that’s one reason I stopped trying to promote good ideas at Novell. There was never any upside for an individual contributor who had an idea, and never any downside for just keeping to one’s self and doing your job every day.

    • Indeed, Matt. Novell was a context in which I started forming an opinion about this.

      I should note that a former Novell colleague of mine, now working at a very well-known Silicon Valley company, contacted me to tell me that he completely disagrees with me on this post. His current company uses the same expression as a way of empowering passionate people to make things happen.

      In our conversation, we came to agree that there’s a right way and a wrong way to pose this question. Essentially, if you use it as a way to shut people up, it’s a problem. But applied effectively, it can can foster a culture of innovation and risk-taking. So, I hereby amend my original post with this qualifier.

  2. Not only are the idea makers often the busy ones, but they also might not be the best person to own the task. Some people are great at coming up with the ideas. They have ideas coming out of their ears, but can’t work fast enough to carry them all out. Then you have other very talented people who don’t have the ideas. They are great implementers and think creatively while carrying the idea out.

    We should be finding ways to get those two people together in a room. Just because I come up with a great idea that could become a new lucrative revenue stream for the company, doesn’t mean I’m the best person to carry it out. (hypothetically speaking, of course. 🙂 )

  3. I agree with your premise. It’s a familiar one.

    There is a difference between throwing ideas back in your face, “Are you volunteering?” and supporting creative ownership, “Do you want to lead out?” Asking if someone will “volunteer” implies taking on additional work or responsibility for free, without help.

    Does your organization support open, agile responsibilities? Can an idea “owner” off-load other responsibilities to willing supporters?
    For new ideas to flourish, management must encourage honest and frank discussions of work loads, responsibilities and goals. The real issue is permitting change.

    Ideas = change. If we allow people to propose ideas in the first place, we must be willing to change, slash other projects, re-align goals, shift job descriptions, hire & fire the right people, and accept new risks. That’s really hard for most established organizations!

    Asking the idea proposer to “volunteer” is a put down, a cheap way to avoid explaining why this change is undesirable.

    • Jeffrey:
      That certainly puts a finer point on it, and clarifies the distinction from what Todd rightly identifies as empowering employees, which is a definite positive . Thanks for your well-articulated comment.

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