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Over the past few months a former manager tasked me with working on a secret side-project for the company I work at. I won't go into too much detail as to why it had to be kept a secret at the time, but it had to do with some conflict of interest between two managers at my workplace.

Fast forward to today, the project is no longer just an "idea". It has a fully-functional prototype that I can actually show to people. But the manager that had me working on the project was recently let go during a massive downsizing and restructuring of the management level at the company, and I'm no longer obligated to keep the project a secret as the conflict of interest no longer exists.

I'm in a bit of a precarious position. I have very little tenure at the company (despite being one of the oldest employees), and I don't think my co-workers have a lot of trust in me (I've had projects of mine shot down before, I'm not really involved that much with the bigger projects, and often I'm relegated to mundane/unimportant tasks). The only person at my work that I had a great relationship with and fostered my growth in the company was the manager that I mentioned earlier -- and he's no longer working here.

Also, ever since the downsizing the company has shifted focus onto a select few projects that I'm not really involved in. I'm afraid that if I pitched my project now it would meet some resistance due to the companies recent shift in focus and it would be condemned to death before it ever gets the chance to really shine.

The project itself has a TONS of merit. Nothing like it has been done before, and I firmly believe it has to potential to be a game changer for my company. The project solves a number of challenges both for the company and for our clients. I this is done right, this project can generate a hefty source of re-occurring revenue which is something that the company has never had before.

As a more technical person I struggle with the interpersonal/communication department and as such I'm really bad at selling things to people. What would be the best course of action for me here?

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    @keshlam There wasn't any formal NDA involved. It was an informal agreement via word of mouth. – Developer McGee Jan 18 '17 at 21:32
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    @keshlam if the project was under development as part of company business, the company owns the IP -- how would an NDA come into play? – mcknz Jan 18 '17 at 22:27
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    Does no-one care what you do with your time? I'm not entirely sure how you expect to continue working on a project that's entirely secret to you. Is the company's expectation of the value you deliver so low that you can run secret projects in your "spare time", do you think that might be a problem? – Nathan Cooper Jan 18 '17 at 22:30
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    @keshlam You cannot patent what you don't own. – paparazzo Apr 28 '18 at 14:36
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    My advice is to keep this project to yourself unless you want to end up like your former manager. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 28 '18 at 22:45
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If your manager had you working on a project for several months, his manager must have been aware that you were working on this project. You should approach that person, even if they are in a new role, for advice on the status of the project and how to proceed.

  • It's kind of complicated which is why I didn't mention this, but let's just say there isn't really anybody above him. Or at least, there wasn't a single person above him directing him on what to do that he could report to. He was given a certain degree of flexibility in his managerial role. – Developer McGee Jan 18 '17 at 22:17
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    @DeveloperMcGee Flexibility doesn't remove accountability. Either he had someone else's approval to do the project or he was informing someone about progress on the project. Your options seem to be: continue working on the project in secret (terrible idea), pitch the idea on your own (you admit this is not your strong point), or find out who was supporting this project and discuss its status with them. – Eric Jan 18 '17 at 22:25
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    @DeveloperMcGee who is your manager now? Is there another person at management level you trust? – mcknz Jan 18 '17 at 22:29
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    I'm somewhat surprised at the certainty here about knowledge up the management chain. In my experience such knowledge is often quite incomplete. – Ernest Friedman-Hill Jan 19 '17 at 12:35
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    @Eric: I would think from reading this it's quite probable that the rest of the company didn't know, and the disappearance of the investment may well be why that one was chosen for downsizing. – Joshua Jul 27 '17 at 21:22
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There are two things going on here.

  1. You have trouble getting your ideas accepted.

Get some people you trust to give you feedback on why your ideas are shutdown. Find out if there some consideration you regularly overlooking when you talk about your ideas. Learn from others how they get their ideas accepted. See what content and style works well for them. If it is simply a question of trust then start with small ideas which have little cost and little risk and work up.

  1. The Secret Project

You were working on a project for someone who was not in you chain of command. You manager didn’t know about this. The person you were working with was fired. None of these are good things. My advice is to say nothing about this. If you have trouble getting your ideas accepted this is not an idea you even want to try to bring up. It could cost you your job. Don’t lie if you are asked but don’t make a point of telling people about this. In the distant future if this idea comes back up and has strong champions you can then talk about what you have worked on but for now forget it.

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Money talks, so pitch this like a skunk works project:

Perhaps the most telling part of success of the Skunk Works program (other than the ground-breaking military and civilian aircraft it produced) is something I found in a report created by the Rand Corporation for the US Air Force and Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1971. In that report, they analyzed project management of the Agena-D satellite development program and compared the planned versus actual results. The project was estimated to cost $60 million, but was completed in $32 million. It was going to take 18 months, but was finished in 9. 69 Quality control people were used, instead of the projected 1,200. While 3,900 drawings were expected, only 350 were needed, and instead of taking 30 days to release each of them, they were released in one day.

and reinforce the no risk, no reward factor:

At IBM, a skunkworks project in 1981 pioneered industry standards to adapt personal computers for business needs and released the IBM PC. This helped IBM break away from its lynchpin mainframe business and launch its celebrated personal computers division. IBM has since continued the skunkworks tradition. In the 2000s, IBM established many “emerging-business opportunities” or EBO teams and assigned its best and brightest people in charge of risky startup ideas that could germinate new business lines in five to seven years.

And since it is a working prototype, put time on your side:

It was a hot day in June, and Johnson was about to be grilled by his Burbank bosses about his Eglin Field encounter with Col. Roth the day before. But the robust Johnson’s demeanor remained forceful, his expression self-confident, his black hair slicked and neatly combed.

Once inside the inner sanctum, Johnson launched right in.

“The Army Air Force wants us to submit a proposal for building a plane around a jet engine. I’ve worked out some figures. They want it fast, and I think I can promise 180-day delivery. What do you think?”

“180 days!” Gross stammered.

That schedule seemed nothing more than a fantasy. No company ever had designed and built any kind of prototype in anywhere near that kind of time — let alone a prototype for a jet fighter. But this was different. This was a top-secret assignment to develop a critical weapon to beat back the Nazi threat. This would be the most important challenge in American aviation.

And come up with a clever name:

One of the co-founders was enamored with Skunk Works and shared his wisdom of Skunk Works with us. So we were thinking about ways we could provide all these things together for the business and the best way we could possibly come up with (after discussing it at length), was creating a new brand and creating our own organization and that’s how Shark Tank was born.

References

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I might first try approaching a few key people in the org who would be receptive to it, gain buy in from influential people, and go from there.

Maybe you could just sidestep the issue of secrecy entirely. If someone who's not your boss asks why they didn't know about it, just give some vague answer like, "Yeah, I've been working on it myself under X boss. Anyway..." Notice how you didn't actually answer their question? People probably won't press you for answers, especially if you evade them once or twice.

I mean, if someone with power over you (like your boss or your boss's boss) really wants to know, be honest. The secrecy isn't really your fault - you were following orders. But no one else really needs to know.

The key though is selling it to people.

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