Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

One of the more common complaints about one’s job is the inability to “get your ideas heard.” At every company I’ve been a part of, there was a large faction of people who lament over drinks about how they have good ideas, and the only thing keeping them from making those ideas a reality is their lack of power or clout in their company.

And they’re probably right, although not for the reasons they think.

The reasons they think their ideas aren’t heard have everything to do with the company. Their boss is trying to keep them down. The head of the company is too disconnected from the day-to-day to see a good idea for what it is. And everyone else is too lazy to implement it.

But in reality I think the problem is threefold, and all of it rests on the shoulders of the budding innovator.

Pooping your idea

The typical way in which these folks share their ideas is through what I call “pooping your idea” out there. Pooping your idea basically involves opening up Outlook, cc’ing a minimum of 10 people, outlining the basics of your idea, pressing send, and then patting yourself on the back, waiting expectantly for your boss or colleagues to tell you how brilliant you are. What usually ends up happening instead?

Nothing. The idea gets ignored, and ends up forgotten. The person who pooped the idea in the first place adopts an outlook that “no one listens to me” and decides to be an emotional drain on the company. If they aren’t going to listen to me, why should I work hard for them?

The two problems with most people’s approach to sharing ideas

  1. They Bite off bigger ideas than the organization is ready for them to take on.
    It’s not that the company isn’t interested in changing for the better, or doesn’t value innovation. In all likelihood, the company got to where it is because it learned at some point to do something better than most other companies. Rather, it’s that they don’t think that the employee is the person who can get it done. They’re trying to tackle problems that are out of their pay grade.
  2. They don’t do a thorough analysis of the problem. Instead, they take 10 minutes to write out their thoughts and send – no review, no evidence to back it up, no consensus of opinion, no massaging the argument and proposed solution until it’s just right. They seriously expect everyone else to figure that part out.
  3. They have no clue how to handle the internal politics involved in making something happen. The reality is that until you’ve earned a reputation as someone who can make things happen, very few people will listen to you. And even then, no one is going to take a memo you write and turn it into the reality you desperately want to see on their own. They’re busy – they have their own projects and problems they’re dealing with.

In short, since no one cares as much about your idea as you do, since you haven’t thought it out that well, and since no one trusts you to make it happen, your brilliant idea is immediately discarded.

The good news is that there’s a solution. And it’s easy to do. It costs nothing but your time. And it addresses all three problems above.

Microvation

Microvation is the principle of innovating on a smaller scale. While very few people in an organization have the power to make the kinds of decisions that can make or break a company, everyone can microvate in their respective areas of responsibility, no matter how small.

What does a microvation look like? Microvation is looking at a way to improve an expense report. It’s adding a “10% discount if you pay in 10 days” coupon to invoices. It’s building an extra 1-2% margin into a proposal and sending that amount back in the form of a check with a note about how you got the work done under budget. It’s setting up Salesforce or SugarCRM to handle client records. It’s creating a Basecamp account and training your colleagues on how to use it. It’s sending out a monthly email newsletter about your department’s progress on critical projects. It’s organizing a lunch and learn series, bringing in smart people in the industry to talk. It’s sending a Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving card to your clients instead of the usual Christmas card.

By approaching your job through the lens of microvation, everything becomes an opportunity to practice the art of innovation (and more importantly, the art of execution.) By getting really good at small things, you earn the right to talk about larger things over time. It replaces cynicism about your job with excitement. Instead of pooping ideas, you take initiative. And instead of lamenting on what could have been, you get increasing responsibility as word spreads that you’re the person improves things and gets things done.

I would argue that by microvating, starting with the most insignificant project and working your way up, you can transform your job in a year. It was the exact process I followed when I moved to New York, in which I went from Account Manager to Director of User Experience to Creative Director in 12 months. It requires a lot of work, humility and patience. But the payoff in job satisfaction and professional growth is astounding.

A twelve month microvation plan

  • Months 1-2: Start with yourself. You want to start as small as possible, and the smallest organizational unit you can impact is yourself. So start thinking about how you can improve your efficiency. Think about improvements you can make to your own processes. Think about how to improve the look and feel of your desk. Think about ways you can become more organized at the office.

    During this period, focus most of your effort on the process of microvating. Focus on your analytical skills – have you defined the problem thoroughly, have you developed a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list of potential sources of the problem? Have you brainstormed (for longer than you usually would) potential solutions? Have you analyzed thoroughly your strongest candidates? Have you received any second opinions?

    Also focus on execution. A great idea poorly executed is worthless. Learn how to define what success looks like, how to break the project into discrete action steps, and learn how to avoid procrastinating and get to work making things happen. At the end of two months, you’ll have made yourself considerably more effective and have developed the skills you’ll need later.

  • Months 3-9: Think about your department as your own small business. Once you get good at making things happen for yourself, you can turn your attention to your department. Again, focus on the smallest possible impact and work your way up.

    One effective way to spend this time is to think about your department like a small business, or professional service firm. Think about what its “product” is. Think about the way it markets and communicates that product to its “customer” (internal team members, actual customers, etc.) Think about how well it manages expenses and profitability. Think about the systems that are in place. Spend a day just brainstorming in each of these areas. You’re bound to come up with dozens of ideas that can have an impact on the company.

    Prioritize by the easiest to tackle first – you want to get some easy wins to build momentum. This means things that can be tackled with no money, limited time, and without anyone else’s assistance. Once you’ve knocked these off the list, you can start to address microvations that require small amounts of company investment or time, increasing slowly as you get better and start to build your reputation.

    During this phase, it’s important to focus on how you communicate and manage the politics of the organization. Learn how to build consensus, recruiting people to your cause one at a time. Learn how to organize work and manage others. Learn how to set expectations with people who hold you accountable, and develop a reputation for beating those expectations regularly.

  • Months 10-12: Step up to the plate With six months of projects under your belt, your boss is probably loving you at this point. Now is the time to attempt something a little larger. Again, you want to focus on something that is as small as possible, but is larger than just the confines of your department.

    Your boss is your most important ally in this, and it’s critical that you use all the skills you’ve learned in the preceding 9 months. You need to have an airtight analysis of the problem, the proposed solution, its benefits and drawbacks, etc. You need to have a concrete action plan in place. You need to arm your boss with what they need to go to bat for you effectively. And again, you need to build consensus one person at a time. Under no circumstances should you go into a meeting and try to sell a dozen people on an idea – it won’t happen. If you win them over individually, addressing their unique concerns and hitting the points they resonate with most, the likelihood you’ll get the chance to implement your idea will go up considerably.

    And when you get the green light? Go after it. Do whatever it takes to make it happen, ahead of schedule, under budget, and with your own special flourish.

    And then do it again. And again. And again.

    A year to a changed professional life

    The plan above might take more than 12 months. Not all of your projects will be successful. You might have superiors that genuinely don’t care, or do think you’re a threat. And you’ll probably get dirty looks from at least one peer who thinks you’re making them look bad.

    But if you spend a year doing what I’ve outlined above, your career will take a drastic turn for the better. You’ll earn the right to talk about big ideas. You’ll have the respect and admiration of your boss and most of your colleagues. And you’ll have acquired a skillset that will make you invaluable to any organization lucky enough to have you.

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