Practical Developmental Ideas #B1 March 2005

Employee Involvement – Ezine March 2005

This issue is about ways to involve employees. 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 release them.

Why involve employees?

A colleague once asked me, “If you were a good idea, where would you hide?” This is an important question. People often know what is going on and what needs to happen to make things better. However, if no one asks them or does not listen to what they say, these ideas will stay locked up for ever.

I ran a meeting for junior staff in a department store once about how to get more people to visit the basement. I listened to them and listed their ideas on charts. In ten minutes, we had two flip charts of interesting, imaginative, and practical ideas. 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 the own them. Everybody knows this, but it is so easy to forget in the rush to hit a target.

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 to make the system simpler and more effective. They quickly came up with 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)

Involvement can save time. 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. It is quicker than forcing change through.

A client had very tedious and rather 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 the full 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.

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 that its dominance in the photocopier industry came from its sales ability. No one effectively challenged this assumption. They even marketed their sales training. In fact 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 have a 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 on a part time basis. This can produce original ideas as the composition and remit of the group encourages people to share and test their assumptions. The experience can develop everybody that is involved.

An industrial research laboratory had chronic problems about career development. Scientists joined it after Ph.D. 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. We provided a solution that changed the assumptions that supported the previous system. The solution was to provide an internal career counselling service so people had some help to think about what role they wanted when they left the lab. Another element was to advertise openly all jobs in the larger organisation so anyone could apply for them. Finally, people were encouraged to find out about what other jobs might be like by talking to jobholders in the wider company.

The managers accepted and implemented all the recommendations and the new system worked well. We also learned a great deal about influencing and change management from this experience.

  • Management by wandering about

People like to talk about what they are doing, the successes they’re having, their concerns and their ideas to make things better. If managers can “wander about” and take time to listen, then they will learn things that simply can’t be learned any other way. Other people’s interest is intensely motivating. I am still amazed how many times people thank me for listening as though it was a rare and precious treat!

You don’t have to promise to solve the problem, if there is one, for the person. Listening, acknowledging how the person feels 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 to have a go elsewhere.

You can do this one to one, which takes time, but may take you further, or in a group. A group is quicker, and gives more opportunity for 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?

  • Developmental meetings

A developmental meeting is a meeting to think about how to do things better. 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 that you make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and everyone gets heard. There is more about how to run these on Developmental Meetings.

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 wider company issues and heard from the sales person about his or her 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 biggest difference to the effectiveness of the sales team. In no time at all we had a huge 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 I do remember the client and the group saying it was the most productive and most enjoyable meeting they had ever had.

  • Interactive Team Briefings

Many organisations do team briefings where the management tell their “troops” what is going on and invite questions. Many managers complain that it is a bit of a chore because they don’t get much interest and very little response. It is quite hard to ask a question if you have had no time to think about what you have heard, talk about it and then formulate a question.

You can get much more interest if you give some information that is directly relevant to the group as well as the general information. You get much more interaction if you use a simple “trick”. Ask the people to take five minutes each way, one person talking and the other person listening and asking questions, to talk about the information, think about and decide on a question she or he would like to ask. You will nearly always get much more participation and more questions.

There is a sample design on this on Team Briefing

  • Large group events

You can take a whole department or even a whole company off site for a day or more and get high levels of energy, enthusiasm and commitment. If you use a process that engages their interest and involvement, they will work well. Tight top down control and long talks by top management will not work!

There are a number of ways to do these. Rather than go into detail, I list below some sources you can look at.

Use Appreciative Inquiry. “The Appreciative Inquiry Summit” (this is in English)

Book by Ludema et al The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change

Using Open Space Technology

Using Charette an elegant and very efficient way to communicate information and ideas, clarify understanding and get feedback from everyone.

I also have a detailed story of a large group development day on the site.

Finally, involving people does require specific skills and attitudes. You always risk learning something new and unexpected when you involve people. It can be desperately hard to unlearn things and be humble enough to accept new ideas. I know I find this enormously difficult 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.

If you want to discuss any of this, please get in touch by phone or email. My contact details are on the site and below.

Contacting me

If you want to contact me, call +44 1707 886553, or email If you want to read about my work, or ideas, or read back issues of the ezines you can also visit I always enjoy informal chats.


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Best wishes

Nick Heap

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick