March 26, 2013

Where Did All the Employee Ideas Go?

When I was a kid, I remember watching Quickdraw McGraw, a goofy cartoon character (a horse, I think) with a Donkey as a sidekick.  Almost every episode, the sidekick would have an idea, or see a problem that QuickDraw had missed.  When the sidekick tried to alert QuickDraw, he would reply with “I’ll do the thin(k)ing around here, and don’t you forget it!”  Maybe you have heard (or worse yet, said) those words in a business environment.  What a waste, and a dangerous situation.  Managers who don’t require employee feedback (not just allow, tolerate or patronize it) are guilty of wasting company money in the worst way.  There are many stories of employees on factory lines (doing repetitive tasks all day) developing innovations to benefit the overall operation.  Wisdom is where you find it, and its value is not diminished based on where it comes from.

For a manager, getting employee ideas can be a real challenge.  Regardless, every manager must invest in ways to engage employees in THE CONVERSATION.  I define THE CONVERSATION as the ongoing dialogue between employees and decision makers regarding the organization’s direction and performance.  It is a continuing cycle of hard questions, feedback, analysis and decisions, working to keep the organization healthy and thriemployee ideasving.  THE CONVERSATION may be the most cost-effective of all the HR solutions available to you today.  Here are some key steps for you to use in THE CONVERSATION.

Ask a question.  When is the last time you (as a manager) asked your employees for their opinion about a meaningful business issue?  Your employees probably know this answer better than you do.  It is a sign of respect for you to ask for your employees’ opinions.  If they are shy about answering at first, don’t be deterred; the end result is worth it. 

Acknowledge all feedback, without evaluation or deciding anything…yet.  Thank the employee for sharing, and ask clarifying questions.  That shows that you are considering what they said, another huge sign of respect.  Document the feedback somehow (emails or an online database are great for this). 

Consider the feedback, and find something you can use or recognize.  Even if the idea proves to be unusable, remember that the idea was based on some premise the employee considers valid.  Be careful about ruling out ideas without working to understand them.  Maybe the idea is too expensive as proposed, but there is a more cost-effective way to achieve the same result.  Look for something you can use in the suggestion.

Follow up with the employee directly.  Tell them what you decided, why you made that decision (as much detail as possible), and what your next steps will be.  This is a key step; if you don’t follow up with the employee, they will not be likely to offer ideas going forward.

Involve the employee in implementation wherever possible.  Who feels more ownership of the idea than the suggesting employee?  Solicit their involvement, and watch their level of commitment, fulfillment and engagement increase.  Other employees will become more motivated to contribute as well.

Share the trophy.  Let everyone know the story of how the idea came to light, and how this awesome employee contributed in such a great way.  The accolades should be like melted butter on a hot, oven-baked potato; you get the idea, I hope.

The next step is to ask another question…if you need to.  Ideally, the questions will start coming from the employees, which is the ultimate goal.  Just keep following the cycle; think of it as pushing the bobsled up a hill.  When you get to the crest, you and your team can enjoy an awesome ride together.

Management is a team sport; keep your team in the game.  If your employees don’t share ideas, it may be because you don’t ask questions, or you don’t welcome the answers.

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