Work: Sometimes you have to pee in the pool

I had an eccentric Great Aunt Vida, who lived in a sprawling home that slinked around a prime piece of Hood Canal coastline in Washington state. She was a bit formal, had married well and widowed young, and was in no way comfortable around children. When my cousins came to visit, she gave them the standard speech as they prepared to jump into her indoor pool: “I have a special chemical in here that turns red when you urinate, so don’t, or I’ll know it’s you.”

The kids, in their elementary years, solemnly nodded and proceed to jump in the pool. After several minutes of splashing about, the youngest, Liam, yelled out, “Aunt Vida? That chemical? It’s not working!”

I love this story because mostly when my Aunt Corinne (Liam’s mom) tells it, it’s really really funny, each and every time. But I also love it because it makes me think about how brave and bold Liam was as a little kid, completely unaware of his own vulnerability as he spoke a truth that he thought would be helpful. Not sure what Vida’s reaction was, but it likely involved a thimble of sherry to soothe her nerves.

I recently watched this Brené Brown TED video on vulnerability, and it has made me think a lot about the offer-reception dynamic of ideas. In order to have a truly innovative idea, you need to risk failing, because it hasn’t been done before. You are putting the work of your mind and heart in the hands of others who will help it succeed — or not. How the idea is received is just as critical. Nearly every organization or manager will tell you that failure is treated as a learning opportunity … but how that is actually handled will vary greatly. I’ve worked for some bosses who have been so enthusiastic and welcoming for my ideas that I couldn’t wait to fail for them again, if it meant having excellent feedback and the chance to build an even better rocket ship. I’ve had bosses who’ve sent such cryptic, critical emails that I spent entire weekends downing Ativan to keep a panic attack at bay, certain I’d be fired Monday morning, but then nothing was ever mentioned again.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career based on ideas, where my creativity has funded my home and car and makes me look good on paper for government bureaucrats. I’ve also been lucky enough to help develop ideas from others and collaborate to make them into real things. Because of that, I offer this:

If you’re proposing your idea — whether its a better way to clean the coffee pots at the wait station, a rerouting of the entire metro transit system so it runs more effectively and efficiently, or handing over your life’s work, laced with sweat, tears and a little merlot — these approaches may help:

  1. Find a good time to propose your idea — when the recipient has space to hear you, and is in a good mood. Also, think about your format. Is it scrawled on a napkin, or did you go to the trouble of making a trailer for it?
  2. Preface your presentation with what you hope to accomplish, and how far along you are in your idea. If it’s just an initial draft with lots of flexibility for change, or if it’s pretty much baked as is, let the person know.
  3. State exactly what you want. Is it an approval to take it to another level of management? Are you looking for collaboration? Do you just want some feedback on a particular angle?
  4. Really understand what the response is. So if the person said, “I love the idea but I’m wondering if you can make it puppets instead of real people,” and you heard, “Your idea stinks, go away,” you may miss an opportunity to make your idea happen … just not exactly as you’d planned. Sometimes puppets are better.

If you are on the receiving end of an idea:

  1. Realize the person offering may have invested a lot of hope and love in this. Treat it accordingly. It’s hard to be creative, like handing over your fragile little heart in a paper cup, hoping someone else will help it keep beating.
  2. Take a cue from improv: Don’t shut down another actor. Say, “yes … and … .” As in: “Yes, I think you are really on to something, and I’m wondering if there’s a way we can include puppets because I know that’s what the network is looking for and we’ll have a better chance of making this happen.”
  3. If you love the idea, be a champion for it. Be brave, it makes people like you better. If you don’t like the idea, find a way to make it better. There might be a seed in there somewhere.

Sometimes it pays to pee in the pool, just to see what happens.

Vanessa McGradyWork: Sometimes you have to pee in the pool

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