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“Idea stealing”- does it affect scientific innovation and creativity?

Posted on: August 18, 2011

InnovationIt is very interesting to note that “stealing others idea’ is a widely accepted common practice in research, both in academic and industrial laboratories. In a society where stealing, even petty things, is considered as a punishable crime, people steal ideas openly, without any hesitation, in academic and industrial organizations. Stealing expressions or ideas from other’s speech or articles (plagiarism) is considered wrong and can be punishable too. So many people have lost their reputation and career as a result of our harsh approach on preventing plagiarism. Conversely, people get away with stealing others ideas in a research set-up for making money or for attaining power or position. We all agree that this is wrong and unethical; however, most of the researchers may feel helpless and do not how to address this issue without jeopardizing their current and future job security. In this blog, we will discuss the direct scientific and socio-economic impact of “idea stealing” in a scientific research environment, particularly in industrial R&D laboratories.

“Idea Thieves”: Who are they?

You have an idea and relate it to your boss; he appreciates it but at the same time thinks it is not a very practical idea for the current project or for initiating a new project. Three months later he comes up with the same idea and completely forgets to mention your name. Sound familiar? Many have gone through this scenario at times in their career path. These “idea thieves” are the very people who kill the scientific innovation/creativity in an organization and these people negatively affect the long term-growth of a company. Now the question is: why do some people steal ideas and who they are? People, who steal ideas in an industrial set up have specific career goal such as peer recognition as an innovative scientist, as well as corporate advancement and monetary reward. Often times they are in middle and top management positions and lack creative/innovative ideas of their own. Working at the management level, they often have the power to decide the job security of the people who are working for them and have the support from the higher authorities in the company. This places them in a position to misuse their power and steal ideas from their subordinates. One of the main quality management criteria of an innovative/creative company is to find out these so called “idea thieves” and take necessary actions. Most of the organizations won’t consider taking any immediate actions since it is not affecting their growth or revenues in the short term. In fact there are more long-term scientific, business and social impact of “idea stealing”. Often, share holders and consumers pay the price for the above mismanagement.

“Idea Stealing” & Consequences

Dealing with supervisors who are stealing ideas, often has a significant negative consequence on the scientific creativity of the researchers who come up with original ideas. In any given organization, one will find a handful of researchers who are intelligent, innovative, creative they are the “true innovators”: the building blocks of a company. They have a broad understanding of scientific knowledge, beyond their working area of research, and these researchers generate ideas based on basic fundamental principles. Once they have a concept, these researchers will teat and expand their ideas by thinking, reading and critically evaluating all the aspects of their ideas. Since they have the in-depth scientific understanding and knowledge, they can predict any negative outcome and find possible ways to overcome hurdles that a certain project may face. On the contrary, managers who steal ideas lack scientific/technical understanding and are likely unable to predict the future obstacles of a specific project, this may result not only in creating a poor product with many loopholes but also misuse of years of R&D investments and time. Above all, the practice of “idea stealing” destroys innovative minds, decapitates innovation in scientific research and promotes mediocrity in R&D laboratories where “pseudo innovators” can sustain.

Favoritism within an organization often plays a significant role and encourages “idea stealing”, which is often adopted to help to create a fast track career path for a person of choice. The executives/managers who champion favoritism and the beneficiaries of the favoritism tend to be more parasitic on others ideas; probably they see “stealing ideas” are the only path to attain their career success. A deadly combination of power, favoritism and “idea stealing” can completely wipe out innovation from R&D laboratories.

Often time in an organizational set-up where “idea stealing” is prevalent, patents are filed without the real inventor’s name though the patent law bars this behavior. Most of the time, the true inventors will not jeopardize their career by filing a complaint against their own employer. Thus, “idea stealing” challenges the fundamental principles of invention, innovation and creativity.

Negative impact of “Idea Stealing” felt at different level of product lifecycle-research products sector as an example

The immediate negative impact of “idea stealing” affects R&D cost and time which results in the development of a poor product, but its adverse consequences are far reaching. It affects product development, marketing, sales, even the consumers. This is very prominent in companies who are involved in making drug discovery assays or reagent kits. The research reagents made by these companies are used for research or screening procedures. These products can be launched within a short period of time, without the approval from any regulatory agencies. Since many of these “idea thieves’ are the middle and upper management in these organizations, they can dictate the marketing and sale personnel to aggressively market inferior products, irrespective of the functional quality, often through hijacking the job security of marketing or sales persons. Sales and marketing will then adopt various strategies/tactics to market and sell these products to the consumers/researchers. Ultimately, researchers lose time and money, which is often paid by tax payers, a major factor that differentiates consumer products from specialized research products. It is true that if a product is bad researchers will not buy the product again and this bad reputation can be spread by word of mouth in course of time. However, worldwide net work of sales force enables to market these products and get the investment back, even before the product reviews are out, which may take years. Sloppy products resulted from “idea stealing” can slow down scientific discoveries and destroy innovation.

What are the solutions?

Solutions are not possible unless significant changes are made within an organization Personal ethics and a “Golden Rule” mindset should be established and strictly enforced. Workers who feel appreciated and secure in their positions and can trust the chain of command in an organization are more likely to be productive. While monetary gain is an incentive for some; professional growth and respect of peers and management often times goes farther in securing a qualified worker to remain with an organization. People want their work to mean something for themselves and for their employers.

Since many of the culprits of this undesirable behavior are in management change must be made from a system wide perspective. Concrete documentation of innovation prior to revealing insights to management can provide a fallback position should you need proof of discovery. Having an open atmosphere at team meetings where new ideas can be discussed without fear of losing discovery rights and peer insight may lead to new directions of exploration.

Another way to reduce “idea stealing” in an organization is by exposing negative practices through web based platforms, including social networking sites. If companies can be ranked through an open platform, perhaps we could expect organizational policy changes. The hard part is to get the people, present and past employees of an organization, to participate in these types of discussion forums because of the “corporate policing” on web based forums and social networking sites. Organizations need to develop and implement strategies that foster creative thinking from multiple layers of employees for maintaining sustainable innovation, which can help the organization to attain excellence in this competitive globalized market. Again honesty is key for any of this to work, it is up to the individual to state the transgression clearly and without embellishment. Finally, it is the social and moral responsibility of all researchers to take courage and fight against this “innovation crime” or “innovation corruption” encouraged by an organization.

“We need to stress that personal integrity is as important as executive skill in business dealings….Setting an example from the top has a ripple effect throughout a business school or a corporation. After nearly three decades in business, 10 years as chief executive of a Big Eight accounting firm, I have learned that the standards set at the top filter throughout a company….[Quoting Professor Thomas Dunfee of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania] .
“A company that fails to take steps to produce a climate conducive to positive work-related ethical attitudes may create a vacuum in which employees so predisposed may foster a frontier-style, everyone for themselves mentality.’ “— Russell E. Palmer

Notes added

It looks like there is some confusion around the concept of “idea stealing” described in our blog, which needs to be explained in detail. Let’s think about a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate our view of “idea stealing” and how it affects innovation and creativity. A scientist in an organization came up with an idea for a novel drug target for a high value disease like cancer. The scientist spent considerable amount of time to study and made a hypothesis based on solid scientific data. Once the scientist had the confidence on the theoretical feasibility of his/her idea, the scientist approached the manager with the idea. The manger realized the importance of this idea and the value it can add to the organization. The manager was excited and gave green signal to the scientist to do the experiments to show proof-of concept. The scientist was waiting for this “approval moment” from the manager and did all the needed experiments to prove the concept. The manager presented the data to the upper management and told the scientist that the management liked the idea and would like to see more data to make it a fully supported project. The scientist went back to the laboratory started working on experiments the manger wants him/her to do. The poor scientist did not realize the fact the manager had presented the data to the upper management as his/her own idea, not as the scientist’s idea or mentioned the scientist contribution, and the manager has already got the green signal from the upper management to proceed with the idea as a high priority project for the company. The scientist also did not know that the manager has already discussed with marketing/sales department for market value/share assessment and the legal department for patent processing. Within few weeks manger called the scientist and told that he got the approval to expand the group to work on the project. The manager did not stop there, the manager convinced the scientist to work on a different project where they need his/her innovative and creative approach; with the assurance that the scientist still be the point person in the project that was started with the scientist’s idea. The scientist was transferred into a new project and after few weeks/months the scientist was surprised to see a companywide news flash about a breakthrough idea for a multimillion dollar product from the manger and the manager got promoted for his contribution. This moment only the scientist has realized that the manager had deceived him and at the same time the manager is in such position that the scientist cannot question the “idea ownership” without risking the job. Ultimately, the scientist was laid-off later sometime because the company was downsizing Though this is a hypothetical example, believe or not things like this truly happen in various organizations. Can we say that the manager did this for the interest of the organization? May be the manager may argue that the scientist is not capable in executing the idea; the manager has to do this. We can agree to this argument because only the manger has the power to get the approval and resources to execute the idea. Does this justify the “idea stealing” by the manager? On the other hand, the fact is that if the scientist would have given an opportunity and support to execute the idea, as a team, the project would not have been a failure. This approach would have created an innovative research atmosphere, which would have benefited the organization in the long-term. It may be also true that the manger would have found another scientist in his/her group to find his next successful breakthrough idea, which may benefit the organization through serial innovations from the manager.


2 Responses to "“Idea stealing”- does it affect scientific innovation and creativity?"

This is so true. Nowadays the idea stealing supervisor is sometimes replaced by idea stealing steering committees, each steering dozens of “innovation projects”. As soon as you come up with a new idea, they are all over it – sometimes fighting among themselves to get your idea into their own particular portfolio of “achievements” and “deliverables”. On their own they have nothing to show for. It is so de-motivating and demoralizing.

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