Big idea: So what if it's yours?
Your success at work is dependent on your accomplishments, not your ideas. So can everyone please stop being so petty about whose ideas are whose?
A very small number of you are strategists and inventors. For you, your ideas make or break your career. So don't bother reading the rest of this column. For the rest of you, face the music: You are not paid to come up with ideas. You are paid to execute them.
So let's say you're a marketing manager and you have a great idea to spam the whole world to get them to buy soap. Spamming is not an innovation, and selling soap has been done before, too. The person who is a genius will be the person who can make a spam campaign work. That would require direct mail expertise, figuring out which product is most likely to sell, setting up fulfillment capabilities.
Let's say the spam campaign is a success. Who's the genius? The person with the idea to spam, or the person who actually increases soap sales? Let me tell you something, in this economy, few companies can afford an "ideas guy." Companies are hiring people who generate revenue: executors.
I'm not saying the world doesn't need ideas. Ideas are great. And in the perfect world, everyone gets credit for the ideas they have. But the world isn't perfect, and people steal ideas at work. And while we fight off large imperfections like fake (Enron) companies, race discrimination, and massive layoffs, getting credit for an idea is pretty small peanuts.
Yet still I hear people complain about a stolen idea as if it was their first-born child. And sometimes I think maybe it was. Maybe the people who worry about a stolen idea the most are the people who have the fewest ideas. Ask yourself if your problem is scarcity rather than thievery. If you don't have a lot of ideas to begin with, then you shouldn't bother trying to be known for your ideas. It's not who you are.
Most people who complain about stolen ideas peg their boss as the culprit. If you're in this category, ask yourself this question: Is your job in jeopardy because your boss thinks you have no good ideas? In that case, you probably need to start documenting your ideas on paper. But I have news for you: Your boss probably doesn't like you if she recognizes you so little as to steal your brilliance and accuse you of lacking ideas. In that case, you can grovel for credit, but you should probably try to find another job, working for someone else.
And here's a tip for when you're looking for that next job: Don't bother listing your great ideas on your resumé. No one cares. Employers want to see resumés with quantified accomplishments. Replace "thought of opening a new sales channel" to "opened a sales channel and increased revenue x."
Maybe your boss steals a few ideas but is otherwise a good boss. In that case, ignore her ethical transgression. You have a limited number of times you can tell your boss she's bothering you. Use those times for instances when you will make more money. If your bonus is tied to having an original idea, then by all means point out the idea that your boss stole so that you can collect your money. But if the only thing that a stolen idea harms is your ego, then get over it.
Besides, the best way to get a promotion is to make your boss love you. And you can make your boss love you by making her feel smart. If your boss feels smart, it doesn't mean that she thinks you're not smart. Don't be so insecure. It should be enough that you know that you have good ideas.