Be happy when someone sh*ts on your idea

Seeds, alone cannot grow. Ideas are no different. They need energy, nutrients, time, and the right conditions in order to sprout.

Who doesn’t like when their ideas grow into a thing that others experience? Products, music, books, food, etc. It’s awesome and builds confidence…but there’s a flip side to that outcome. Frustration and confusion. For years I’ve noticed that some of my ideas at work were well received in the moment and some were outright dismissed, only to be resurfaced and pursued sometime later — often as someone else’s. I couldn’t understand why this was happening but I’d always tucked it away. Last week I realized a pattern was happening and all of a sudden everything made more sense. I noticed that, much like seeds, ideas germinate and grow or wither and die for similar reasons. It’s quite likely that this supporting analogy has been proposed before but this is how it played out for me.

Before I dive in, a disclaimer.

Recognition and acknowledgment are critical elements to psychological safety among teams and organizations. It provides evidence that you are valued beyond the basic compensation of an employee-employer relationship. While I won’t directly address the importance of recognition below, I will say that it doesn’t always happen in less mature organizations. I will always encourage it as a best practice. It’s important that ideas have fair attribution and it’s easy to do.

Thank you, David, Greg & Dan C. for your thoughtful narrative nudges and edits that helped get this piece out in the wild! 🙏

How do seeds germinate?

Consider a number of factors. Seeds are living organisms in as much as a certain percent of them will germinate in the correct conditions and produce seedlings, which, in the correct conditions, will produce plants and eventually more seeds.

Many variables can affect the germination rate of seeds. How the seeds were stored, their age, the depth at which they were planted, the weather, the soil they were planted in, moisture, and temperature can all play a role in the success or failure of germination.

Alone, seeds cannot grow. Seeds literally germinate from a combination of nutrients and environmental conditions. Some seeds must pass through the bowels of an animal in order to germinate. In almost all cases they need to get nutrients from somewhere and sometimes seeds literally need compost (“sh*t”) thrown on them in order to sprout.

Sit with that for a moment, then think about the nature of ideas leading to action and the filter of conditions and people that they go through.

Seeds ↔︎ Ideas

I’m going to interchangeably use “seeds” as an analogy to “ideas” shared within the ideation process. The analogy resonated with me because like ideas not all seeds will germinate to see the light of day.

An idea can be defined as, “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.” It can also be defined by, “the aim or purpose.” Whichever of those you land on, in order to further develop it you need to align on the purpose of the idea and its potential benefit to the outcome that you’re driving towards — within the context of the organization or team working together. While I was working through this piece, a wise friend reminded me that “an idea is simply a hypothesis.” Without alignment, timing, resources, and appropriate supporting conditions in place, the idea will wither. “Just as a plant won’t survive if it tries to take root in the wrong place and conditions in an ecosystem.”

So, if seeds need sh*t thrown on them in order to sprout why would business ideas be any different? It’s an unavoidable truth that these “seeds” often need to pass through a colleague or ten in order to gain momentum and eventually be considered for resources that might help it see the light of day. It’s up to you to accept the conditions and stay focused on the most important outcomes that you can actually influence or directly control.

Why aren’t my seeds germinating?

In the context of my professional career, I’ve witnessed a ton of my “seeds” fail to germinate. Until this week it really affected me and I couldn’t see past the fact that it was happening because I didn’t yet see the larger pattern. I’ve regularly offered solutions, ideas, possibilities, alternate directions, etc. in the past that ultimately have been ignored, dismissed, or indefinitely postponed via the ol’ “parking lot”, to then be re-presented as a “new idea” by someone else that was in the conversation or — more interestingly — someone that wasn’t. It bugs most people to see their ideas tossed aside, much less recycled as new within days, weeks, months, or sometimes minutes. It bugged me too and I had to ultimately just let it go.

Moving from confused to content

I’m not upset that the seeds lay nascent because of personal attachment. My general frustration comes from the fact that I offer these seeds upon listening intently to the proposed problem statement and thinking deeply about different angles to explore. It’s been my job for almost two decades to sew together complex concepts in simple ways. When I hear my “seed” resurface it’s gutting. At least it was until this week.

Sweeping obvious frustration under the rug is not the same as letting go. As much as I’d grown accustomed to just sucking it up or saying “eff it” to make it easier to justify or reconcile the frustration that my seed wasn’t received when I delivered it, I now see these lessons and opportunities ahead for what they are, reminders of what I already knew and had forgotten.

  1. Let go of timing.
    You can’t control how an organization will digest your seed, but you can play an active role in creating conditions for it to exist in the future. Offer the seed without expectations of action.
  2. Let go of ownership.
    Who’s to say that you or I was the first person to plant a particular seed? What matters is that it has a chance to carry forward, so do the best you can to frame the idea and debate it based on its merits, not your attachment to the outcome.
  3. Don’t EVER take it personally.
    This ties into the point above. If you need to get frustrated, go for it. But spend that 5 minutes asking yourself why you’re frustrated and commit to letting it go when you find that answer. If it’s attribution, call it that and find a separate time to raise your concern as feedback. That is 100% fair. We’re all simultaneously juggling millions of thoughts, inputs, pressures, emotions, motivations, scenarios — life. You may have the best, most perfect idea that is absolutely the right solution for the moment but the conditions are not in place for the decision-maker to see it for what it is because they are distracted by their million things and how that impacts their path.
  4. Learn how to deliver ideas in different ways.
    I love this. It’s a perfect opportunity to ask peers for advice on how you might better position your “seeds” in the future. It’s a chance to prepare differently and gain additional perspectives. Those conversations alone can serve to clarify or refine your understanding of the idea and better understand your bias towards it. Use it as an opportunity to get to know your audience, how they communicate and what language they use. What matters to them and how can you connect them to your ideas through their language.

Are you the one delivering the compost?

For the decision-makers reading this, you’ve just wandered into a learning opportunity as well. Now is the exact time to also lean on the “Inquiry-based” mindset to mitigate assumptions. Maybe step back and think about why you went with a response that dismissed the seed. The timing may not be right but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Give this approach a try.

“I’m stuck. Can you help me connect the dots to your idea and how it relates to the opportunity?”

Taking a few, humble minutes to better understand where the idea is coming from can be magical. You can learn of a new blind spot. Yes, we all have them and it’s OK. You might find an entirely new opportunity that stands alone from the conversation that led you to it.

If you just open up the conversation — for the sake of understanding, not guaranteed action — at the end of it, you’re likely going to have a better conversation that facilitates alignment while building trust and creating a safe psychological space.

Sometimes you genuinely don’t have time to inquire. You can still take action. Ask your colleague to document their idea and how it relates to the opportunity. Have them send it to you. Then schedule a 30min session to discuss the idea so that you both have a good understanding of the “seed”. Make it clear that the review is a discovery session, rather than a decision session.

When someone sh*ts on your idea, be happy.

It’s probably an idea worth further discussion.

We know that most seeds need a combination of conditions, time, and nutrients in order to grow. Be ready for when yours comes back around. Support it if you can. Be happy that it’s been given life, regardless of where it’s coming from or the potential lack of attribution.

Your seed is growing. It’s OK to plant it and let someone else care for it.

Thank you for reading.

I hope it resonated with you in some way (good or bad) and I’d love to hear any thoughts about it that you’d be willing to share.

I’m a mandolin-playing dad & husband. I’ve been at the product & design doer↔︎leader game since 2003. Time to start sharing stories from this journey.

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