He said “if you want a playground, go find another job”

Roughly six years ago, while working at my previous employer Verizon, I asked one of the technology leaders, who was probably having a bad day, why we don’t have a tech playground so that technologists like us can innovate. His answer was, “if you want a playground, go find another job.” That statement both hit me hard and confused. Why would a leader push against innovation? Yet, I stayed on with the company for a couple more years. I did not give up on innovation. I kept refining the ideas and gained support from the leaders who helped create a productive ecosystem in the company. Six years after that encounter, I decided to leave Verizon to pursue new opportunities at Thomson Reuters after a great 16 years at the company. Few days before my last day, I happened to bump into that same leader. I doubt that he recalled our conversation many years back. Still, I thanked him regardless.

I realized how important is the context in any discussion with leadership. The leader probably misunderstood my intent, and I did a terrible job using the term playground instead of more familiar terms like “r&d” (research and development), “MVP” (minimum viable product), or “prototype.” Also, even if the term “innovation playground” is appropriate to use, innovative playing is not enough. I later learned this particular leader wants to ensure that projects are financed appropriately and have the right ROI. Hence, a playground for the sake of fun is not fully understood by all leaders, even though some other companies tend to encourage employees to take some time during work to experiment with new ideas.

Sometimes we receive specific messages at the job that can be hard to take. As leaders, we also need to be conscious when we do the same. Yet, the power is turning negative messages into powerful ones that can make us do better. I used the opportunity to learn from the situation, avoid a knee-jerk reaction, and improve my messages, both sending new ones and decoding the receiving ones.