WHAT?! 014: Somebody Stole My Idea

[image: yelling dog, annoyed cat]

WHAT?! is Drooly Dog’s Advice Column for the Creative and Perplexed. In which I answer burning questions about the creative process and what might be holding up that brain of yours. Send your questions to: hellodroolydog@gmail.com.

Dear Drooly Dog: I work in a design firm, doing graphic design. Yesterday, I was in a meeting for a new project we are working on. We were making plans to present ideas to our client.
Right in the meeting, in front of my face, another graphic designer held up a design that was an exact copy of an idea I discussed with him the day before. My design.
The project manager loved it and said it should be included in our client presentation. Everybody in the room agreed. I sat there stunned, I mean I couldn’t form words. I was quiet for the rest of the meeting and then I went back to my desk.
I have no idea what to do. If I go to the project manager and tell what happened, I’ll come off as a back-stabber. But if I don’t, my own idea won’t ever be attributed to me. In this business, your portfolio matters.
What should I do? Right now I’m just biting my nails and anger-eating.
– Sincerely, Ripped Off and Raging

Dearest Ripped Off,
I had the exact same thing happen to me at a software company once. Here’s what I did.
First, same thing – sitting in a meeting, watching this dude present my idea as if it was his own. I let it play out, since I wasn’t sure he was going all in on this. But he did.
Directly after the meeting I got up, walked to the office of the VP who was in charge, sat down, and informed him what happened. Straight up.
Sounds heroic and proactive, right? But there’s more to this story. And a lot of it takes place before this theft happened.
See, I was friends with the VP. We talked regularly. And so he trusted me. He knew I wouldn’t just bring dumb stuff up like a cat hauling half a mouse to the front door. We had worked together a while, and so when I was straight up like that about something, he listened.
In your case, I don’t know the lay of the land in terms of your relationships with the team members. Particularly, your project manager. If you have a good working friendship, you should go in right away and lay it out. However, based on the fact that you went back to your desk and are now downing donuts or something, I suspect that you do not feel secure about your standing in the group. This is why you are questioning yourself.
Relationships are everything, because those set the frame for whatever conversations happen. Waves are made whenever someone jumps out of line or makes an end-run around their direct boss or what have you. But if you regularly talk to lots of people, and you keep people informed about what you are doing, conversations are much easier. You talk about actual things, instead of the news being that you’re having the conversation at all (“Did you see so and so went in such and such’s office? She never does that! What do you think it’s about?”) It’s not back stabbing if you are in regular contact. It’s working together and communicating.
If this design is consequential to your portfolio, defend it. Have a one-on-one with the project manager and explain. If your PM has a weird or combative reaction, you know that relationship isn’t super. You can either work on it, or move on and seek to work with people with whom you can build a better scene.
And, you now know something about this other designer. So factor that in. Don’t discuss designs with that person. Discuss them with the PM.
You can’t manage any job just from your desk. You have to over-communicate what you are doing. It pays off when you need to defend yourself.
Sincerely, Drooly Dog

Drooly Dog offers creative advice only. Nothing legal or medical, please follow of your own accord. It’s up to you, man.

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