Reserve your seat at the idea table

A beautiful thing happened this week.
How many conversations do we have each week in the office to be polite but yet stay so general that the conversation is little more than exchanging pleasantries. It’s the quick pass-by in the hallway, the introduce at a meeting, or greeting during lunch time. This week I asked a colleague if he was done with a series of work meetings that were held across the country. He was on his way to a meeting and I expected he would say that he was done with the meetings and continue on his way.

But he stopped and came in my office to give a more elaborate answer. A conversation in passing turned into a conversation of substance.

It wasn’t a generic answer. It wasn’t a quick answer so he could be on his way. What happened was that he gave me details about some of the elements of the meeting and a recap on how he personally attempted to make an impact for the attendees benefit. As I was listening, I sipped a little bit of coffee thought to myself, “I’m glad I took the time to ask him about this. I may just learn something!”

Get to the idea table.
As he summed up his experience, he told me about a guy in Sales who made it a point to get to the “idea table” with the customer. The ultimate position for the Sales guy is to be at a point that when the customer is thinking about new programs, campaigns, or initiatives that they want the Sales guy at the meeting to contribute knowledge and ideas. The relationship is no longer about a sale, it’s about value-add. That’s not a new idea and I know volumes have been written about how to do it. But it made an impression on me this week because my colleague spoke about it with passion. He was excited to talk about it and what it means to his organization within the company. Getting to the idea table is earned not given. It takes time and requires past successes.ideatable

What about the technology idea table?
The idea table exists for the technology team as well. It’s not necessarily a formal meeting, a gathering, or a committee. It could happen in casual conversation, within email, or even an instant message. Often times in the technology group its spontaneous. A customer has a problem and a technician is stumped and needs a different set of eyes. He looks for colleagues to come to the idea table. A new project request is entered to create automation that doesn’t exist. Suddenly people are thinking about ideas and possible solutions.

The engineer’s passion.
They want to explore ideas, tinker with prototypes, and solve puzzles. They want to suggest ideas and listen to other ideas. I think there’s a bit of an ego thing with engineers to reach this state. They want others to value their ideas. They want peers to respect their ideas. Right or wrong, I could argue that an engineer’s mindset can often place more importance on their peer’s respect for their work than the customer’s respect. The trap for an engineer is not to get sucked into the trap and mindset that it’s more important to be ‘right’ than to find a solution. That’s a blog topic for another day.

How does the technology worker get to the idea table?
The obvious answer is to know your stuff. I really consider this a given because the quickest way to earn respect from technology peers is to know the software and/or hardware that is serviced inside and out. You have to be able to speak about it intelligently. How it is constructed and how it works.

But I think there are two more important factors that really determine who get’s the idea table.

1. Know the why
The technology employee needs to understand why a program or service is in place. What problem does it solve? What value-add does it give to a customer? Understanding why the technology exists bridges the technology employee to the mindset of the customer. The customer wants others at the idea table that understand how they think and what is important to them.

2. Be positive
People gravitate towards other people that are positive. To get to the idea table the technology employee has to get out of the mindset that “it can’t be done” and start asking the question “why not?”. The contributors at the idea table search for ways around seeming unsurmountable barriers. They look for compromises. Above all they stay positive that a solution does exist.