I’ve found working as a freelance business analyst to be among the most enjoyable engagements of my time as an IT consultant. For one, it’s pretty lucrative. It’s also a chance to learn more about how a client operates across numerous business units and disciplines, which can lead to a long-term relationship (or a quick exit, depending on what you learn). Best of all is the opportunity to be a little creative and add new, original value to projects. In a truly healthy business, that opportunity exists regardless of job category (long live Kaizen), but it’s expected of a business analyst. If you spend half your day knee-deep in operational and financial data, you better notice something useful and bring it to your client’s attention, or they may not be your client much longer.

Underlying this opportunity is, however, a risk (isn’t there always?). What if you come up with an idea or concept that is so good, so groundbreaking, and potentially so profitable that you can’t help but be reticent to share it with your client?

Before your internal ethical alarm goes off, rest assured that at least 95 percent of the time, you will find yourself professionally (and if you client is sharp, contractually) bound to share your idea with the team. And that’s great — after all, you are being paid to think on behalf of the client, and any good engagement contract will have at least a page-long section on Intellectual Property.

But make no mistake — most revolutionaries develop their ideas while working for somebody else. And not a lot of them are patent clerks like Einstein; these visionaries developed a huge chuck of their “vision” based on the institutional knowledge and shortcomings of their employers. In the business world, it’s called experience.

So, how can you tell you tell if your big idea is clearly the property of your client? Your instinct should be to share the idea with your client, though if you can’t help but think this one might be worth pursuing on your own, ask yourself these three questions as a quick litmus test of how genuinely unique your idea is.

  1. If you were to bring up the idea at the next project planning or status meeting, would the Project Manager quickly table it as being out of scope?
    This is the simplest test, of course — any intellectual property generated within the scope of your engagement is the property of your client. But “scope” is always a soft concept, and it gets stretched, particularly in planning phases. Visualize a meeting, complete with the personalities (particularly the manager) involved. If your idea would just seem like a weird thing to bring up in this context, it is probably outside the scope of your engagement. Err on the side of a really broad scope here.
  2. If you were to call a meeting to introduce this idea to the client, do you regularly work with everyone who would need to be in that meeting?
    This is a somewhat broader way to test for scope, but again, you want to be broad. If your big idea is truly a little bigger than your current engagement, you probably would need to present it to an LOB or VP from a business unit with which you don’t typically work. It will be hard to avoid Marketing, in this context. As much as I hate the label “strategic,” your idea should at least stand to impact a few quarters of high-level planning to be truly outside your engagement.
  3. Is there any way on Earth you would have come up with this idea without proprietary data from your client?
    Comparative Web metrics and production layer behaviors are easy to come by or observe. Ask yourself, could I possibly have come up with this idea without special knowledge of my client’s analysis or projections? If the answer is no, share the idea with your client.

Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are hard to enforce on new ideas, and some readers might consider these views on the need to disclose an idea to clients as a bit Pollyanna. Some others might consider them a tad shady. But professionalism is something you carry with you from engagement to engagement. Offering up a new idea to a client is a great way to prove your value. If the idea is clearly out of your current scope, pitch it as a new joint venture. Then if the client is simply not interested, you have what you think is a great idea in your back pocket.