Many years ago, while working for a small magazine in Mumbai, I had an idea for a mobile phone app. The app was for an advertiser who was looking to create one of those integrated media publicity packages for a new product. (This is an advertising strategy whereby the client uses print, television, radio, billboard, face of founder in banner ad on top of webpage, flyers, brochures, in-shop displays, alluring women in Hard Rock Cafe, viral marketing, and embarrassing interactive events in shopping malls, to convey this coherent message to the consumer: “The faster you buy this product in large quantities, the sooner we discontinue ad film starring Genelia. Totally your call. Two dozen? Excellent.”)
In my case I no longer remember exactly what the product was, maybe some form of youth-oriented toothpaste. Our advertiser wanted to know if there was any way we could engage our ‘youth demographic’ in the brand through mobile phones. So I suggested a social network where people can share short text messages, not more than 100 or 120 characters, along with hyperlinks, pictures and their location. Then the brand could inject promotional messages, videos, and pictures of their own, and use the location information for special offers and community events.
Everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. But the budgets were never forthcoming. And then months later Twitter, an almost verbatim copy of my idea, becomes this international craze.
I do use Twitter once in a while for personal use. But each time, I do so with a twinge of jealousy. This should have been my start-up. It should be me sitting in New York or Silicon Valley or wherever, drinking caviar milkshake, eating appam and lobster stew off a platinum plate, playing my favourite party game, ‘Who Will First Switch on the Bang & Olufsen LCD TV by throwing Rolexes at the Power Switch from 25 Meters!’.
But then having your idea stolen and not getting credit for your invention are incidents that are all too common in the modern workplace. I am yet to meet a cubicle-dweller who does not have a sob story about how their brilliant marketing scheme, Kaizen concept, or insider trading trick was stolen by a co-cubiclist.
So this week let me share some ideas to prevent this from happening. Let us put an end to this blatant disregard for the sanctity of intellectual cubicle property.
Now the most common way in which ideas are stolen in the office is through email. A co-worker or boss will ask you for a copy of your presentation so that they can ‘review’ it. And then, boom, half an hour later they are presenting it to the board themselves. The fiends.
There are several ways to prevent this from happening. The first is to never give anyone your complete document to review. Only give them disjointed pieces. In fact, throw in a few slides from entirely unrelated presentations. Tell them the whole thing is still work-in-progress. For instance I always like to send the “Thank you! Questions?” slide first. This confuses most bosses for up to 45 minutes.
Of course a superior might insist that they see the whole thing. This is a sure-shot early warning sign of back-stabbing. Thwart this as follows: first tell them that your email is wonky and you will give them the presentation via USB stick. Next surreptitiously embed something heavy into your presentation so that it is too big for your corporate email system. For instance: Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Now hand over the presentation on the stick. Your boss will flick through everything, try to email it out himself... and fail.
If he asks for a lighter file, replace the Apu Trilogy with the Transformers Trilogy. Because it is ‘lighter’. Laugh privately.
One popular trap is to give your boss black and white printouts for review, while the live presentation includes psychedelic animation—Unicorns in business formals?—and garish colours. Imagine the comedy when he/she secretly tries to present without telling you.
Traps can also be left in footnotes, appendices and addenda. Tiny footnotes might appear negligible on your boss’ laptop screen. But on the big screen in the conference room, shimmering purple footnotes do stand out: “Note to self: As requested, include boss as co-author. And then 100% without fail delete this footnote before board meeting.”
Some shrewd cubiclists and career criminals will bypass all these techniques. In which case it is best to burst into the room, halfway through their presentation, and say breathlessly: “Sir! I have created a new version where the company is even more profitable in 2015...”
The most important thing, however, is to keep telling people about your ideas. Organize lunch meetings, workshops and brainstorming sessions about it. This will scare away copycats. And even if they do cheat you, everyone will know they did.
So like I was saying, this idea for Twitter...
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Sidin Vadukut’s earlier columns