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Idea Thief Prevention

BikelockI was recently talking with a colleague whose coworker had stolen an idea, and their coworker presented it as their own. As we discussed the details of what happened, the theft happened because my colleague had shared their idea in casual conversation with the thief, but before they could act on it themselves, their coworker emailed the boss with one of those, "Hey! I just had an idea! What do you think?" emails. There was really no way to refute it without it turning into a "my word against yours" situation.

I've seen this play out before, and it's unfortunate when it does, but there are ways to prevent idea theft in the workplace. Here are a few common practices I've followed:

  1. Keep it to yourself until it's ready to be presented: We all like to bounce ideas off of our colleagues and feel that we can collaborate without this happening. But allow yourself some time with YOUR idea. Noodle it. Challenge yourself. Shoot holes in it. Retool it. And "ready to be presented" doesn't mean it has to be perfect; it simply has to have passed the first harsh judge: you.
  2. Think of ALL the stakeholders who MIGHT have a vested interest in your idea. Who will be the decision-makers? Who might be impacted if it becomes a project? Who will be impacted if it is implemented? Who are your naysayers who might want to sabotage your idea (don't overlook this group or deny their existence)?
  3. Document your idea using a business case template. I have a template I've used and included in my book on project management. But at a minimum, make sure you have adequately documented the problem or opportunity and your proposed solution(s). Quantify what you can. Provide a clear path forward. Again, perfection is not the goal here; documentation of your idea is.
  4. Brand your idea so it is noticeable and identifiable as yours. 
  5. On your first draft of your business case, make sure your name is clearly attached to it and save it as a non-editable PDF. Also, ensure that both the document and your email are adequately date and time stamped. 
  6. Send it to everyone on your stakeholders list. Set the expectation that this is just an idea and you are seeking initial reactions and feedback. Based on the office dynamics, you decide how wide of a net you wish to cast. You may want to just start with those people you know will be friendly to the idea. Ensure that your audience that it was sent to the others on your list. Possibly send it to a couple of people outside your department. Bottom line: do NOT send this to just one person. This is the protection I discussed earlier. You now have witnesses that this was your idea.
  7. Provide your reading audience with clear next steps. Ask them to send you their feedback by a specific date. Request suggestions for additional stakeholders who may want to read it. Invite them to send their responses as a "reply all" (or use a collaborative editing tool for transparency).

Ideas need not be stolen. There are always ways to protect your intellectual capital. Good luck with your idea security system.

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