Is letting go the best way to steward new ideas?
"I wanted to see if others would pick up this idea and run with it....I didn't want it to be dependent on me." Mary explained as we discussed her faltering programmatic idea.
Mary had been feeling distraught. She really believed in the potential of her idea to generate new revenue. But she was disapointed at the lack of progress being made. Mary was coming to grips with her role - was she going to lead this new program? Would it take root and grow without her?
Sharing an idea without properlly cultivating it is a common misstep I see a lot of well-intending leaders make. They want others to engage with their ideas and share ownership. But when they let go too soon, they fail to steward it effectively.
Sometimes the leader lets go too soon because they want to foster the autonomy of other contributors. They want someone else to run with their idea, like Mary did. But no one else has the clarity of vision that the leader possesses yet. Nor do they share an understanding of the boundaries for making it happen. Instead of inspiring others to act, they feel too overwhelmed, lost, and unsure to gain traction. So, the idea fades away.
I always like to say, water without a container will spill everywhere and make a mess when it could have been used for something more purposeful. Like water, people need a container to focus their time and energy. They need boundaries. The responsibility is on the leader to define boundaries. For new, unprecedented ideas, it takes an investment of time and effort upfront.
And that's often the crux of the problem. Ideas are nothing without consistent and dedicated effort to turn them into reality. It is easy to overcommit to work on an exciting new idea without taking a step back and evaluating how the idea fits into existing commitments and priorities. Or processing for a moment what it will really take to turn the idea into reality.
Overcommitting to new ideas was a bad habit I had to confront early on in my business. According to Strengthsfinder, Ideation and Activation (taking action) are two of my strengths. Those can be a great combination until they lead to burnout, overwhelm and nothing getting to completion. I found myself spread too thin dealing with completely avoidable problems on a number of occasions.
I had to train myself to lean on another strength between having an idea and acting on it, Strategy. Hitting the pause button, reflecting and prioritizing has helped me to suss out which ideas I commit to and which ones I let go of.
I continued processing this situation with Mary. As I asked some more questions, she realized, “I have too many other responsibilities that are a high priority right now. As much as it hurts me to say this, I think I have to let this idea go.”
While Mary’s specific idea faded away, she expanded people's perspectives and sparked new conversations. A colleague, Karen, had the energy and time to commit to doing the hard work of leading a new program. It is not what Mary had envisioned but the work Karen is doing is closely aligned with the essence of Mary's idea.
This story speaks to the art and finess of co-creating. Leaders need to both establish boundaries and foster space for co-creating to occur. It is easy to get caught up in the specifics of an idea and forgoe the deeper purpose of our work. Holding on too tightly to the details of what we imagine makes it near impossible for other people to take ownership and make meaningful contributions. In this instance, Mary was more of a catalyst for change than the one cultivating a new idea into being.
For Mary, letting go was sad and disappointing. She really believed in her idea and hoped it would make a difference. But she also recognized that it wasn't about her. And while things weren't working out exactly the way she had envisioned, she had the presence of mind to recognize things were panning out just fine. That perhaps, letting go and allowing Karen to step into leading with a new, refined vision was the best way to serve the mission of their work.