Mary Churchill, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA
A great idea is only five percent of what ends up being a “winning” idea.
Graduate training is all about coming up with good ideas – the best ideas possible. You read, read, read everyone’s great ideas. You write to distill the best of the best. You create a research plan to test the best ideas and to come back from the field with brand new great ideas. You are rewarded for the quality of your thinking, your ideas. There is a bit of politicking – picking the right committee members, making sure they play nice, etc. For the most part we bemoan the politics and complain that they detract from the real work of academia – thinking big thoughts and being brilliant.
And then we enter the real world.
In the real world, there are lots of great ideas – millions every day. A good conversation or a productive meeting can generate a hundred ideas. They flit out of your mouth, bounce around a room, perhaps they even make it up to the whiteboard. If you have done the necessary groundwork, your idea might just remain on the whiteboard – surviving the meeting and being circled rather than crossed out.
What necessary groundwork? Don’t great ideas stand on their own? No.
The necessary groundwork is the social and cultural labor you extend in getting the group in that conference room to buy in to your great idea. This is particularly crucial for women and members of groups that are not normally represented at the head of the conference table. In the USA, if you are not an older white man, then this means you. People are accustomed to receiving leadership from older white men. When a man in a meeting speaks, most of us will stop and listen. The rest of us have to work much harder to get the attention of the folks in the room.
Fair? Not at all. True? Definitely so.
When you send your great idea from your brain to your mouth and into the chaos of the social space that is this meeting, it is received by others who may or may not know you. If you have built relationships of mutual respect and you have done the necessary groundwork, those who know you and respect your work will support your “great idea”. Those who do not yet know you or your work will listen to those who choose to “sponsor” you. It is important to develop strategic alliances with powerful “sponsors” – people in power who support you and your ideas.
It is both what you know and who you know.
When you walk into that conference room, you bring your social and cultural capital to the meeting.
Additionally, it is crucial that when you present your idea, you present it as a contribution that invites collaboration and input. People want to be part of a “winning” idea. When you present your idea to your colleagues, you are selling it. Plain and simple. If you cannot show them how they are crucial to the success of the project, they will tune out and start answering e-mail on their iPhones and Blackberrys. If your idea does not “need” them to be successful and does not “invite” them to collaborate, it will get less support.
Your idea can be anything from developing a new academic program to re-thinking the way your department delivers its fall orientation. To make your “great idea” stick: think it through, gather your supporters, and present it well. This is not an oral defense of your dissertation. This is team work. You are no longer a lone academic in an ivory tower. You are part of a larger whole and communication is key.
Once your great idea passes the initial whiteboard test, it is up to you to make sure that the idea stays alive, gets publicity, is successfully implemented and goes down in history as a “winning” idea.
Good luck at your annual retreat!