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Everyone Should Be The Million Dollar Idea Guy

April 6, 2017

A friend of mine was an intern at IBM many years ago. He told me the following story. It might have even had a bit of truth.

A guy went to work at IBM fresh out of college. As he showed up the first day and walked to his cubicle, he noticed the rows and rows of offices with people busy at work. Except for one office. In that office was a guy sitting at his desk staring out the window. The name on the doorplate was “Robert.”

The new employee quickly became immersed in his job. The constant deadlines, emails and meetings meant he was their early and often stayed late. And everytime he made the long walk to or from his desk, he noticed Robert simply sitting in his office.

Finally, the new employee approached his supervisor. “What’s the deal with Robert? I never get email from him. He never attends meetings. I can’t figure out what he does here.”

“Yeah, Bob,” his supervisor responded. “See, last year Bob came up with an idea that made the company $10,000,000. And we’re hoping he comes up with another one.

I’ve retold that story often. The meaning is very clear to me, but not necessarily to everyone. I was shocked at one point to be sitting in a meeting and being told, “Rodney, you’re not the million dollar idea guy.”

The person speaking completely misunderstood the point of the story and realized part of the fault was mine. The message from the story is not that you should let your employees sit and stare out the window while hoping they come up with a brilliant idea. But, rereading the story above, I can certainly see how that looks like the message.

I once had a programming team lead come to me when I was running a small software startup.

I’ve got a problem with Mary.


I can’t get her to show up to our morning 10:00 AM scrum meetings. She never gets here before 10:30.

Does she leave early?

What? No. She’s here until 7:00 every night and sometimes later.

She’s a good programmer, right?

Absolutely. In fact, other than me, she’s probably our best coder.

Then, the solution seems pretty simple.

Really? What is it?

Hold Scrum at 10:30.

If Mary works best from 10:30-7:00 and she does a great job, let her work those hours.

I’ve had people work for me that were terrible at writing. Fortunately, their job was to be an engineer. Sure, it was embarrassing if they misspelled something in email before sending it out. But, I had to decide would I rather have a first-rate engineer, or someone who could write good? (Yeah, I did that on purpose.)

The lesson of the “Million Dollar Idea Guy” is to decide what is your most important criteria and manage to that criteria. If someone wants to keep odd hours and they are available when needed, don’t force them into your schedule. If someone lacks a skill, decide if it’s a core skill. If not, don’t worry about it. You hired them to be engineers, not journalists.

Your goal as a manager is to attempt to make every employee the “Million Dollar Idea Guy (or Gal).” If they turn in results, and you are interested in results, then let them “stare out the window.”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2017 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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