I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a friend asking me to remove a reference to someone talking about a project who was taking credit for the project without doing any work. Although I completely understood her frustration, I really didn't want to remove the quote. It just so happened to be the best quote I could find to underscore the importance of the project. And I needed to drive home the importance of the project (one technique is to reference third party quotes - something I learnt in writing term papers) to my audience. Conundrum!

Was it really that damaging to the project to give credit to someone who is a big talker instead of a big doer, especially when his big talk is of value to spreading the word about the project? And if it was a collective project that no one person could lay claim to, did it matter that I even quoted him in my presentation? And finally, if the quote itself was helpful to me getting the point across to an important group of stakeholders and removing it was going to make that task more arduous, why remove it?

Is credit really that important?

Well, yes and no. The things that make giving credit important are:

  1. Communities are often meritocracies. Therefore, those who are recognized as contributing gain whuffie. This whuffie leads to them being able to accomplish more. If the wrong person gets credit, this person could potentially use his/her whuffie for evil instead of good.
  2. Getting attention for an idea often leads to monetary rewards. Clients who don't do their homework and take a quote or a clip of someone taking credit for a project that isn't their own and hire him/her for money make credit important. If the people doing the real work end up broke and desolate because Mr. Talky Pants reaps the rewards for their hard work, this is an awful outcome.

So, I understand the request for me to not promote Mr. Talky Pants. He shouldn't reap the rewards or be able to use the credit towards promoting his not-so-desirable agenda.

At the same time, I watch as a great deal of time and energy is spent by really smart people on who gets credit for what. There seems to be a direct co-relation between the amount of complaints about being ignored and those who start ignoring the person complaining:

ignoring ratio

Why? Well, even if the complaint is totally valid, nobody can do much about it. And if you tell someone who has used a quote or mistakenly given credit to the wrong person that they shouldn't be, it just makes them feel bad...and they'll relate feeling bad to you. So they may stop giving credit to that person, but they won't feel obliged to turn around and give it to you.

I know. I've been the person complaining. And I know it came across poorly and more than a little whiny. My ego had gotten in the way of the real end goal.

What I realized in the aftermath of me spending a great deal of time and energy worried about who is stealing my thunder is that:

  1. It isn't my thunder in the first place. Ideas are rarely (if ever) formed in a total vacuum. I didn't just suddenly come up with something and it happened. Lots of people had great ideas before me that were built on until I merely added a dimension to it.
  2. Ideas are meant to be spread, not egos. And the idea WAS being spread. That was the point. Not whether or not I was hoisted up as being the biggest hero in the universe. Why would that matter? It's not about me. It's about the idea and how it helps others.
  3. If that was my last good idea, I'm screwed. So why focus on it? Instead, shouldn't I be focusing on what is the next big idea?
  4. I should be more concerned about the ideas that I've had that weren't spread. There is a good area to focus on. Why didn't they resonate with people? Should I work on my own communication skills? Maybe my research is wrong.

Ideas aren't very tangible unless they are acted upon. And in order for an idea to really take flight, you need all sorts of people to make it happen. You need:

  • A creator (or creatorS) - the raw idea people.
  • A catalyst (or catalystS) - the people who take an idea into actionable territory.
  • A champion (or championS) - the promoters who are good communicators and have a good network to promote the idea through.

Credit really belongs to all of these players. An idea without execution is worthless. A great idea and execution that nobody knows about will go nowhere. The trick is to make certain we aren't focusing on one piece of the innovation at the end of the day. We need to change our dialogue from being about the myth of the lone inventor (hat tip to Scott Berkun's awesome The Myths of Innovation) to the reality that everyone has a role to play, even if it isn't something we inherently value (like marketing or product management).