Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of any organization, and it’s often the no managerial players on the front lines that come up with the biggest corkers. But woe to the employee who tells a seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur how to do things better. Those firms all have legends of The Transfer to Siberia. So problem-talk is just passed among peers rather than handed up to the boss. The cure? Keep the ideas flowing and the heart of your operations pumping with clear, convenient channels of employee communication? It reminds me of a line from poet Mark Van Doreen:Bring ideas in and entertain them royally, for one of them may be the king.
Forecast brainstorms for staff meetings
At meetings, I’d say, “Give me your RBIs” (Really Big Ideas). One by one, around the table we’d go. One person might propose a new policy or procedure. Another passed along an idea from a customer or vendor. Somebody else described a team member’s innovation. The brainstorms were torrential and livened up the place. If you try it, vary the format and occasionally provide incentives to keep the creative juices flowing. For the best RBI of the day, we are often awarded a dinner certificate or small cash bonus.
Poll the people
Our annual culture/climate survey asked employees what they liked about our operation, what they thought we could do better, and what they would do if they ran the place. HR sorted the feedback by topic and presented summaries to the executive team. Some suggestions were good and others comically bad. Some were real Eureka! Moments. The e-mail we sent to employees broke it all down: “Based on your recommendations, here are some things we’ll be changing . . .” and “We won’t be able to implement the following suggestions because.
Query new recruits
New hires have the fresh eyes of a consultant, minus the enormous price tag. But get them before they’ve slid too deeply into the status quo. Tapping newbies for advice also makes them feel valued, which engages and motivates them. Even if their suggestion is a stinker, react positively so the feedback channel stays open.
One morning a new salesman in one of our suburban Minneapolis stores mentioned that he sensed a rift between the mechanics and sales staff. “The tire-counters come across as pretty resentful,” he said innocently, “like they think we’ve got a cushy job.” Ten minutes later, when I met with the store manager, I asked how things were between the mechanics and the sales team. Reluctantly, he acknowledged some brewing tension. “
Quiz departing employees
Here’s an overlooked resource. Denial and rationalization tell us we aren’t losing much so we don’t need to listen to deserters. These people have the dirt you want. Simply ask, “What do you think we need to change around here?” Take notes. A person packing up his office has little to lose and, typically, is only too happy to tell you what he thinks. Sometimes the grapes are sour but diplomatic follow-up questions can separate the sweet from the sour. For best results, have the soon-to-be-ex-employee talk to his boss and, separately, to his boss’s boss.
Break these rules even once—by going ballistic, imposing unilateral solutions, or identifying your source of information—and your Intel pipeline will run dry. Worse, resentful employees may retaliate against the whistle-blower or idea person.