People who work for organisations often have ideas and thoughts that could make all the difference, but they don’t express them. This note gives some practical ways to unlock them.
Why involve employees?
A colleague once asked, “If you were a good idea, where would you hide?” This is an important question. People often know what is happening and what needs to happen to improve things. However, if no one asks them or does not listen to what they say, these ideas will stay locked up forever.
I once ran a meeting for junior staff in a department store about getting more people to visit the basement. I listened to them and listed their ideas on charts. We had two flip charts of engaging, imaginative, and practical ideas in ten minutes. They started implementing some of them straight away. I asked them if anyone had ever asked them for their ideas before. They said, “No, Never”. What a shocking waste of human intelligence!
Involvement increases energy and commitment. People will put their energy behind projects they are part of creating because they own them. Everybody knows this, but it is so easy to forget in a rush to hit a target.
Example 1 – Improving a System
An organisation made medicines from blood. This required very rigorous testing. The process for handling the results was complicated and unwieldy. We got together the people who operated the system in a room and asked them to think together about how to make the system simpler and more effective. They quickly devised ways to simplify the system and eliminate unnecessary work and introduced them rapidly and effectively. They owned the solution. (There is more on this on improving systems)
Example 2 – Speeding up wage negotiations
Involvement can save time. It is quicker than forcing change through. This is odd as the usual reason people give about not involving people is that it takes too long. If people know the facts and you listen to their thoughts and feelings, they will usually respond positively.
A client had tedious and confrontational annual wage bargaining sessions with the Unions who represented his employees. The information the company gave about the financial position of the company was very guarded, and the Union reps always thought the company could afford more. There was a battle that no one enjoyed.
The company decided to let the Union reps see the detailed books of the firm so they knew its financial position. The negotiations then went very quickly and smoothly. The Unions were less demanding than before. The relationship between the parties became more cooperative on other matters too.
Example 3 Sharing and Challenging Assumptions
Involvement that encourages people to share their assumptions and challenge them can save the company. There are compelling case studies in “The Thin Book of Naming Elephants“, which is excellent, about how untested assumptions severely damaged NASA, Xerox and the American car industry. For example, Xerox assumed its dominance in the photocopier industry came from its sales ability. No one effectively challenged this assumption. They even marketed their sales training. It came because they had a monopoly. When they lost this, their market share plummeted disastrously.
Two of the many excellent questions posed in the book are: –
Do we currently expect all the members of our organisation to speak up? Do we reward them if they do?
When did we last surface our assumptions for discussion?
How can you involve people?
Temporary task forces
You may want to get new thinking on a knotty problem that needs a new approach. You bring together people from across the organisation and representing several different levels to think about it from first principles and come up with a proposal you can say “Yes” to. Usually, you set a time limit, and people work on the project part-time. This can produce original ideas as the composition and remit of the group encourage people to share and test their assumptions. The experience will develop everybody that is involved.
An industrial research laboratory had chronic problems with career development. Scientists joined it after PhD or postdoctoral work for about five years and then moved to divisions of the larger organisation. Senior managers decided where to place people. This took a lot of time and caused much politicking and competition among the scientists to get a good slot.
They set up temporary task forces to look at the problem. They provided a solution that changed the assumptions that supported the previous system. The answer was an internal career counselling service, so people had some help thinking about what role they wanted when they left the lab. Another element was advertising all jobs openly in the larger organisation so anyone could apply. Finally, people were encouraged to find out what other jobs might be like by talking to job holders in the company.
The management accepted and implemented all the recommendations, and the new system worked well. We also learned much about influencing and managing change from this experience.
Management by wandering about
People like to talk about what they are doing, their successes, concerns, and ideas to improve things. If managers can “wander about” and take time to listen, they will learn things that can’t be learned any other way. Other people’s interest is intensely motivating. I am still amazed at how often people thank me for listening, as though it was a rare and precious treat!
Listening, acknowledging the person’s feelings and asking for their ideas on what they or others could do will help. People also gain enormously when they describe their successes to you. They get more motivated.
You can do this one to one, which takes time, but may take you further, or in a group. A group is quicker and allows for the cross-fertilisation of ideas but may be more superficial.
This is nothing new. You can read about it in “A Passion for Excellence” by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin. However, is it happening in your organisation or your client’s organisation? Do you think it should?
A developmental meeting is a meeting to think about improving things. One crucial difference between these and other meetings is that the members create the agenda democratically, so you talk about things that interest all or most of you. The second is ensuring everyone gets a chance to speak and gets heard.
A client was worried that the meetings of his sales group were a bit sterile. He was bored with them. The group went through the sales figures, heard his briefing about broader company issues and heard from the salesperson about their patch. He set the agenda, but the meetings were always dull.
We decided to try an experiment and create an agenda democratically. I asked people to list on a chart the issues that they thought would make the most significant difference to the sales team’s effectiveness. In no time at all, we had a vast and varied list. Then each person ticked the three or four they most wanted to discuss. The ones with the most ticks formed the agenda.
I can’t remember the topics now, but the client and the group said it was the most productive and enjoyable meeting they had ever had.
Interactive Team Briefings
Many organisations do team briefings where the management tells their “troops” what is going on and invite questions. It is hard to ask a question if you have had no time to think about what you have heard, talk about it and then formulate it. Many managers complain that it is a bit of a chore because they don’t get much interest and very little response.
You can get more interest if you give information directly relevant to the group and the broader picture. You get much more interaction if you use a simple “trick”. Ask the people to take five minutes each way, one talking and the other listening and asking questions, to talk about the information, think about and decide on a question they would like to ask. You will get much more participation and more questions.
There is a sample design on this here Team Briefing
Large group events
You can take a whole department or company off-site for a day and get high energy, enthusiasm and commitment. Tight top-down control and long talks by top management will not work! They will work well if you use a process that engages their interest and involvement.
There are many ways to do these. I list below some sources.
Book by Ludema et al. The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change
Open Space Technology
Charette an elegant and very efficient way to communicate information and ideas, clarify understanding and get feedback from everyone.
Here is a detailed story about a large group development day.
Finally, involving employees requires specific skills and attitudes. You always risk learning something new and unexpected when you involve people. It can be hard to unlearn things and be humble enough to accept new ideas. I know I find this enormously tricky and often fail to do so. In our competitive world, exploring different points of view seems more difficult than finding an argument to knock them down.