Scarcity versus abundance in knowledge management

If the thought of people stealing your ideas is what’s stopping you from thinking out loud on a blog, you’re not alone. It’s a valid fear. If you’re afraid of your ideas being stolen, your mindset is probably that of knowledge scarcity – that you should hoard knowledge because that’s what gives you power. That makes sense to a lot of people.

Another mindset is that of knowledge abundance. There are plenty of ideas to go around, and sharing knowledge gives you power. That makes sense to a lot of people, too. Here’s a quote from someone who got it a long time ago:

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.

Howard Aiken, computer scientist, 1900-1973

I like talking about my ideas and work-in-progress, and I do it as much as the confidentiality rules and IP guidelines of my employer allows me to do. I think there are tremendous advantages in following a knowledge abundance mindset. I may have wailed about not having a thesis topic (because other people were doing much cooler stuff) or not being able to write a book (because wonderful open source maintainers were merging my suggested features into their code), but I consider that a net win. And then I move on to coming up with the next idea, and the next, and the next.

If you talk about your ideas, you get practice in talking about your ideas: communicating the key points, the benefits, the risks, the challenges and opportunities. You get questions that can help you refine your ideas. You get all these opportunities to make your ideas better. You get to meet a wide range of people who might be able to help you make your idea happen. You grow your network. You build your reputation. And, of course, you might make things work.

I love it when people steal my ideas. Sometimes one of my ideas is picked up by someone else and they do cool stuff with it. Sometimes someone else comes up with the same idea and makes it happen. FANTASTIC! =) I get the validation that the idea is great AND the benefit of being able to use the new product or service without doing any of the hard work. =D I love it when this happens. I hope people steal more of my ideas.

Yes, there are unscrupulous people out there who may steal your idea and then go after you for having it. But there are far more awesome people out there who will take your idea and help you build on it. So it’s really up to you… You can go the lonely inventor route, working on something that hardly anyone will see until it’s ready, and worried about people stealing it anyway because a company with deeper legal pockets can still come along and harass you. Or you can open it up, get a lot more leverage on your time and talent, and create a lot more value for more people in the process.

Try a small experiment and see if you like it. Share a little. Chances are, the sky’s not going to fall on you, and who knows? You might even make a serendipitous connection, learn something new, make something happen. =)

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