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Sharing ideas: The only way work actually works

Sharing Ideas

I’ll keep this post on sharing ideas decently short, in part because I’ve already tackled the concept of knowledge sharing using examples from Trello’s organizational design.

Where to begin?

I hope we all understand the value in sharing ideas. The theory would go that, by sharing an idea, someone could improve upon it. You see this recently in the tech sector. Google and Tesla, for example, open-source a ton of their patents. They essentially give access to seemingly-proprietary information to the world, in hopes the world can make it better.

Here comes the conflict, though.

Businesses have been run for so long on proprietary information, it’s almost baked into most cultures. Crucial information for people to do their job is often withheld down the chain, or across silos. Largely it’s withheld psychologically. It makes the person with more power/information feel better about their perch. Almost no one ever acknowledges that, which is where we got the expression “That’s above your pay grade.”

In reality, Bridgewater Associates — one of the most successful hedge funds in human history — believes nothing is truly proprietary (it’s called “radical transparency”). And, well, er, um, they make a lot of money. Isn’t that part of the whole goal?

So here’s our essential battle:

Sharing ideas seems good, but we need to protect our brand and our individual perches. 

What now?

Sharing ideas and what makes a good engineer

We all deify engineers these days. But what makes a star one? Do we know? Here’s some ideas:

Back in the 90s, researchers at Carnegie Mellon set out to find what made the difference between “star engineers” and everybody else. At first, they were puzzled. “Perplexingly, after two years, our data showed no appreciable cognitive, personal or psychological, social, or work or organizational differences between stars and non-stars,” they wrote.

But as they dug further some insights started to emerge.They found that star engineers had a knack for “knowing who knows,” who is most likely to have valuable information that could help them solve a problem. A similar study of the design firm IDEO found that great innovators essentially act as “brokers “ able to access a diverse array of useful sources.

“Knowing who knows” is deeply tied to this concept of sharing ideas — or at least being willing to share ideas. “Diverse array of useful sources” is the same deal.

Doesn’t sharing ideas mean collaboration?

Dictionary-definition? Yes, probably. In reality, no. Here’s the difference in my worldview:

Sharing ideas is more organic. It’s running into a co-worker in a shared space, or IM’ing with someone. “Hey, what are you working on? (Beat.) That sounds interesting. Want to talk more about it?” It happens naturally. It might take a long time to initially happen, but when it does, the ball can really get rolling.

Collaboration is largely something forced on us by managers.

How do we get better at sharing ideas?

The first tier is pure psychology. You need a culture that understands good ideas can come from anywhere. That’s really hard for a lot of people. If you just spent 10 years climbing a chain and were constantly told “No, not yet?” Well, when you get the executive washroom key, you want to go do that to a bunch of new people. You hoard information to protect your level. It’s only natural.

So first you need a culture who sees value in open information. Most “thought leadership” only cites tech companies as examples of this. Tech companies do it better than the average, sure. But some other companies out there “get” this idea.

Beyond that, you need channels for sharing ideas. These can involve:

  • Open spaces with food/games so people will congregate
  • Events designed to share knowledge (which will also cut down on some loneliness issues)
  • Some type of shared doc/site to collect ideas and have people comment, up-vote, etc.
  • A process for vetting which ideas will go forward, get funding, etc.
  • Incentive structures for those who combine cross-silo on a legit business model idea
  • Group field trips
  • Smash the cubicle walls with a sledgehammer

Basically, you need:

  • A culture that “gets” it
  • Physical spaces and tech corners that allow it to happen
  • Clear incentives on what people might get from it
  • Rinse and repeat

Probably the strongest argument for companies trying their hand at sharing ideas

Think of a 1972 Fortune 500 CEO. Consider the access to information he had.

Now think of a 16 year-old girl in Mumbai right now. Right this second.

Who do you think has access to more information at their fingertips?

I’d vote the latter.

Information is far more free globally now, via Google, Facebook, the Internet as a whole, mobile connectivity, etc.

But despite that cultural trend, organizations haven’t caught up. They mire themselves in an outdated way of thinking about information and who can access it.

The only way to cut through that —

— and the only way to “make work actually work for you” —

— is through sharing ideas.

Thoughts?

Ted Bauer

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