How nonprofit employees can help ideas be heard and embraced
Bryan has an idea for something he thinks might help his nonprofit. His supervisor, Wanda, already has a lot on her plate at the moment. When Bryan says, “Here’s my idea,” it feels like a threat to Wanda’s energy, even if she’s open to hearing it. It’s like passing possession of the idea to her—and now she has the added pressure to do something with it or otherwise be seen by Bryan as a place where his ideas go to die. To Wanda, it can also feel like a threat to her status because it wasn’t her idea, and thus the dynamic conflicts with Margaret Wheatley’s principle that people care about what they help to create.
I’d argue the worst way to share an idea is to say, “Here’s my idea” or “I have an idea.” Sharing your ideas like this can cause issues because of the implied ownership. A lot of times, leaders don’t have all the answers and would welcome some assistance; however, it’s important for us to offer it in the right way.
Our brains are constantly trying to predict what is going to happen next. The occurrence of new or uncertain things can cause confusion and anxiety that we physiologically work to avoid. So, we need ways to overcome these barriers.
“I have an idea” could be lazy. We think it’s providing an answer, but it is no shortcut. Here are three specific ways to help move your ideas forward faster:
- Experimentation. For brand new ideas, propose your idea in the form of an experiment. Instead of saying “I have an idea,” try, “I’d like to propose an experiment (or trial run).”
This now requires you to suggest not just the idea, but also take the extra step to figure out how you would try it. Proposing an experiment brings your supervisor into the caper. You’re asking for their permission to run an experiment, not burdening them with the challenge of implementing a new idea from scratch. Experiments aren’t final; you can always go back to whatever you were doing before. They only require the manager to gauge risk/benefit or whether the experiment feels like it is right track or wrong track with the priorities of the organization. When a new implementation works, there is plenty of credit to go around.
- Contribution. When your colleague is sharing ideas or insights about a problem they have, a great way to share if you have an idea that can help is to say, “That makes me think of…” and bring an example.
This phrase is a great way to interject when you have something to contribute without hijacking the conversation away from continuing to build together. It leans into your credibility and expertise rather than creating threat with idea ownership. It’s similar to proposing an experiment in that you have to take the extra step to bring in the example such as an anecdote or case study, but it can be done quickly if your example is truly top-of-mind.
- Alignment. When you are working through issues with someone who has been reluctant to accept your ideas, two things can help:
a. You can move the subject away from yourself and make your audience’s goal the object. Say, “Someone once told me… and it may work here.” Or, bring in similitude, data, anecdote or case studies and allow your audience to draw their own conclusion without you stating it for them. Even if the example is from you, or the idea is yours, you can say it’s from a third party to direct your audience’s attention to the data—and away from you.
b. Additionally, when the group is simply not open to what you have to say at all, ask questions.
If your audience fails to provide purposeful feedback or reacts negatively to your idea, you can respond with multiple What if’s? to redirect to a possible future and the potential around you.
There are creative collaborative situations where you can announce “I have an idea!” and your team may meet that with curiosity and attention, but that isn’t what you should plan for when you are attempting to drive progress.
One more tip! We don’t think about words. We think visually. Do you dream about words? No. Not even when you’re the editors at Blue Avocado. We dream with imagery. Whenever you share an idea, you should do so invoking imagery. Be as tangible and visual as possible, with sequences, charts, examples, and stories.
Here’s a short video with more tools to help.
Jack Elkins is the founder of Sidekick Innovation, a professional development and innovation project firm. Before starting his own company, he was the Director of Innovation for the NBA’s Orlando Magic basketball team where he built the NBA’s first innovation lab. He helps leaders and teams master the most effective ways to innovate and transform into creative collaborators, so they can navigate and conquer their business challenges—together. You can see more at SidekickInnovation.com. Jack lives in Central Florida with his wife and two sons.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
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