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How to Work for a Boss Who Has a New Idea Every 5 Minutes

You walk down the hall, head spinning — unsure of how to stabilize yourself. You went into your one-on-one thinking you had clarity on your current priorities. You just left it wondering how in the world you would squeeze in the five new ideas your boss just dreamed up. You cringe when you have the premonition that an email with the subject line “another thought” might be waiting for you once you reach your desk. Visionary bosses can be exciting, fun, and innovative. They can also feel overwhelming when there’s no way that you can keep up with all of their creative ideas. As a time management coach, I’ve coached many creative idea people and coached many people managed by creative idea people. Based on that experience, here are some helpful strategies for managing up when your boss gets distracted by too many creative ideas.

Foster Mutual Respect If you find yourself overwhelmed by your boss’s creative ideas, most likely you are more of an action-oriented person. If you’re not careful, you can start to develop a judgmental attitude such as, “I’m the only one who gets anything done and contributes value around here.” And this attitude can cause you to lose respect for the insight that your boss brings. Avoid that trap and instead choose to focus on mutual respect. It may be true that you’re better at executing on tasks, which is a strength that you bring to the table. It also may be true that your boss is better at helping determine what should be done and keeping the team from getting stale. Instead of seeing the differences as bad, it’s most helpful to look at them as complementary assets you both bring to the team.

Recognize Not All Ideas Require Action If you’re a very action-focused person, you may automatically assume that when your boss shares an idea that she expects you to do something about it. But often that’s not the case. Individuals with creative minds can think of 100 new ideas before breakfast. There’s no possible way that they — or anyone — could keep up with them. Some of my coaching clients have found the best solution is to keep an email folder or another “parking lot” of ideas that their bosses come up with that aren’t related to current projects and priorities. They might say something in a meeting like, “That’s a great idea,” or send an email reply saying, “I’ll take a look.” Then add the idea to the parking lot without feeling compelled to take any further action. Often times your boss just wants to share something that’s on her mind and is satisfied with acknowledgement of the idea. The general rule in these situations is that you wait until the idea is brought up a few more times before doing anything, otherwise you can just let it sit. (Of note, this may not work in all situations so be aware of your boss’s expectations. If she expects every idea be pursued, you’ll need to use the expectation negotiation strategies below.) But this parking lot strategy does work in many cases without any substantial consequence.

Explain the Time Commitment Individuals with a bent toward the creative often have difficulty estimating how long activities will take. If you find that your boss seriously wants to pursue a new idea but that it would take a substantial amount of hours, help her understand the cost. For example you could lay out that it will take 20 hours of staff time and 15 hours of contractor time to follow through on the idea. Is she comfortable with that allocation of hours and budget? When you detail out the time commitment, at first your boss may be shocked because she assumed it took much less time. And then she’ll likely say, “Oh, never mind. It’s not that important.” By explaining the cost, it takes the pressure off of you to make things work and on to her to give the idea the resources it needs.

Come Back to the Plan If your boss tends to get distracted with new ideas, she likely has difficulty setting priorities. Instead of shutting down an idea that she’s excited about implementing, re-direct your attention back to the team’s monthly or quarterly plan. Ask questions such as: How do you see this new idea fitting in with our current goals? If we take on this new initiative, we will need to drop or delay another, which one would you be willing to de-prioritize? Is this idea something that we need to implement now or could it be considered for next year? By laying out how pursuing a new idea will have an impact on other priorities, you can help your boss assess what makes the most sense from a strategic perspective. Working with a boss who has a constant flow of creative ideas can be stimulating — or debilitating. By using these four strategies, you can leverage your boss’s creative strengths while minimizing the stress and frustration of trying to keep up.

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