Voluntellism v. Why Companies Need Inventors AND Their Ideas

A few weeks ago, my coworker and I were frustrated over how to format a picture for a project we were working on. A third coworker came in and looked at what we were doing, then offered a suggestion. The following exchange occurred:

J: Why don’t you do it this way?

K: Ugh, can you just do it?

Me: K, remember what we talked about, making a person execute their own idea just because they suggest it?

Ah, voluntellism. What I have proclaimed “the scourge of the business world.” For those unfamiliar with the concept, voluntellism is the acquisition of a task or project, under the guise of it being your own decision. It is the cause of heartache for many, who find themselves overextended with extra work after showing interest in improving their organization. It raises a fundamental question: is the originator of an idea responsible for its execution?

QZ says yes, in a recent piece entitled “Why Companies Need Inventors, Not Just Their Ideas”. Peter Gwynne posits that the ability of an entreprenuer to dictate the direction his or her idea takes, is a powerful reason to incubate innovation within an organization.

I agree with this idea, but would also argue that some ideas involve expertise that the creator of the idea doesn’t have, and could be better executed if handed off to someone else. The success of an idea is conditional based on the resources allotted, and the priority that the organization gives it, but shouldn’t be left to sink or succeed based on who is involved in the project.

So how do you go about proposing an idea, without assuring that it lands squarely on your plate?

Find willing co-conspirators. We all have a few allies at work who will help us with projects. You know, the people who say “Let me know if I can help at all!” and mean it. When you have an idea, cull those resources and see if they can help you make your dream a reality.

Come with a problem…and a solution. I received this tidbit of advice at a conference nearly five years ago now, and it has stuck with me. Coming with a problem to a supervisor or director has the potential to take away your agency in devising a solution. Take the extra time to answer some of the questions that higher-ups may have, and include the efforts of others (see the first point) in your solution. With any luck, you’ll be recognized for your initiative, but not buried with the work it will take to enact it.

“Volunteer before you’re voluntold.” This has become an unofficial motto for me in my new role. If there’s a project that you sense is about to land in your lap, don’t let it drop. Reach up, grab it, and set it down yourself. This may seem counterintuitive, but consider the change in attitude that represents.

A project that you don’t have any control over receiving can produce feelings of resentment, frustration, and helplessness. However, if you authentically accept a project, there is a level of agency that comes with that decision. That agency could be the difference between being the reluctant owner of a project, and making a project your own.

Has voluntellism reared its head in your office? How do you deal with it?

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