“How did I hire so many people who have no ideas?”

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The above Dilbert strip unfortunately is true of so many places that I have worked for. Time and time again I would see expensive consultants hired to improve operations, when employees themselves had many great ideas that were ignored.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal research by Alan G. Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, the average U.S. employee’s ideas, big or small, are implemented only once every six years!

Employees who are engaged and encouraged to contribute ideas can be a tremendous asset to any organization. IdeasAmerica, an association for “suggestion administrators,” who manage suggestion submissions, surveyed 31 of its 125 members last year. The study found that submitted ideas saved respondents more than $110 million dollars in time, materials, labor or energy, an average of $1,256 per suggestion.

Toyota’s success as a company is in part due to its ability to engage employees who contribute ideas on how to improve operations. According to the book All You Gotta Do Is Ask by Chuck Yorke and Norman Bodek, Toyota implements an average of nine ideas per employee per year.

Any organization whether in government, non-profit or the private sector needs to create a culture where employee ideas are encouraged. Culture typically starts at the top, sadly from my experience many elected officials and CEOs are too insecure to empower employee contributions. Dilbert makes the point all too well.

What do you think?

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Mark Hammer

I don’t know that it is always insecurity. I suspect that once the organization gets big enough, the opportunities for eliciting, and incorporating, employee ideas, without being disruptive to the corporate management mechanisms, may be fewer in number. Moreover, as the organization gets bigger, and more hierarchical, employees become more specialized in not only their function, but in their presumed role, and perceived as designated sources of ideas.

In some respects, it starts to conform a little bit to all the of those typical barriers to knowledge sharing. I.E., I won’t ask you for your ideas because you’re not the designated idea person, and you won’t offer your ideas because there doesn’t seem to be a hunger for them or normative portal for feeding them.

I think it is also fair to say that not all organizations should be receptive to ideas all the time. There’s all the budgetary-year things to contend with, informing all stakeholders of changes to process or whatever, and a great need for periods of organizational stability, if only to let employees catch their breath and catch up. At a certain point, I’m sure it can start to feel like having kids in the kitchen who want to “help”. Even the best manager can feel compelled to usher them out of the metaphorical kitchen, and park them in front of the metaphorical TV, so they can do things the old way and simply get them done without having to adapt so much.

When I used to teach, one of the big challenges was figuring out how to get through all the material that was planned for that lecture, without declining students the opportunity to ask questions, or giving people shirt-shrift, pretending to field them, and leading them to think they couldn’t ask questions or that there was no point in trying. Same challenge when it comes to employee ideas in organizations.

David Dejewski

I think with the advent of social media and the many inexpensive Web tools available to leaders thes days, the excuses for not including citizen or employee feedback are fading.
See a piece I wrote following last year’s OGI conference for some ideas: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/ogi-conference-internal
Check out some of the panelists suggestions and the lessons they learned in real time and shared with the group. There are some nuggets in there for anyone interested in reaching out.

Dannielle Blumenthal

All of these comments resonate with me:

* Sometimes people sort of “vomit” an idea out there without taking any responsibility for it, packaging it, researching, etc. and then they are disappointed when the boss doesn’t jump up and down going “Oh definitely, right away, let’s do that!” And they give up and sulk. So that’s one part of the problem – you have to train people as to how to submit their ideas.

* Part 2 of this is that once people take the time to package and submit an idea, it should be shepherded through some sort of transparent system – Web tool or whatever.

* People do tend to be relegated to their “corner” when it comes to ideas (e.g. you work in Area X so why are you suggesting things about Area Y?) – particularly in bureaucracies where defining and then defending one’s turf against attacks is part of the system. The person who offers a disruptive idea from an external area has now magnified the number of “challengers” to the existing guarder of turf. That, coupled with a lack of institutional mechanisms for providing such ideas, will over time prevent ideas from surfacing.

* Lack of information and/or time to critically reflect on existing information – the better the internal communication the greater the exposure of employees to information that can help them offer productive suggestions. Sadly internal communications is often considered unimportant – almost an afterthought.

* Combining all of the above – big ideas tend to be disruptive to the status quo (to put it mildly). So if an employee comes in with an idea that could dismantle a hierarchy, shift the organizational structure, or even eliminate portions of an organization or its function, they are unlikely to receive much of a welcome from people within the organization.

The last point is, to me, the central problem of how the government can leverage employee suggestions most productively. By definition you would almost have to circumvent the existing organizational structure to obtain the big ideas needed to solve the big problems. And then you would have to circumvent the structure in order to have those ideas evaluated objectively.

To some extent this was done with the President’s SAVE Awards – federal employees were asked to offer ideas for improving government efficiency and then other entrants could vote on them. However, I’m not so sure about the assessment criteria – the agencies themselves:

“All ideas will be sent to the relevant agencies to review for potential action, including inclusion in the budget.”

It would be more objective to make all the ideas public and let parties external to the government comment. As far as voting – again – it seems unlikely that an organization will vote for its own disruption, but perhaps there could be a cross-agency panel to consider the ideas submitted.

Bottom line – all of the above is difficult to do. The shortcut is to hire a consultant who swoops in, makes many of the same recommendations your ideas would, and then flies out, while you are free to ignore much of what they’ve told you or say it would not work in your particular context.

Over time, when people with decades of experience see these idea-gathering exercises conducted and then shelved over and over again, they grow immune to the initial lure of the question: “What do you think?”

Susan Thomas

People who present ideas are often viflified and the reasons are many. As a manager, I welcome ideas at all times. To strive for continuous improvement is always the right thing to do.

Angel Llerena

I sum it up this way;

In government, good test takers are provided job opportunities and some promotions. It has nothing to do with work experience, work ethic, suggestions and ideas to enhance and/or improve operations, services or saving time and money.

In other cases, it is the result of poor interviewing skills and individual assessment, or appointees.

Other cases involves lack of recognition, favoritism, low morale and management styles that do not foster ideas and/or suggestions.

Mark Hammer

Some years back, I was discussing universities with a longtime friend who is a medieval history prof. We were commiserating about the underperformance of our students, and something he mentioned in passing got me to thinking about the role of “role”.

He told me that when universities were first started, the assumption was that anyone who attended one would necessarily be a teacher/professor, someone to continue and expand the discipline. In other words, if you went to the institution, you acquired the responsibility of stewardship of the broader institution: the idea of the university, and of the discipline you studied.

I looked at the students I had, and it dawned on me that the thread that ran through much of what I got from them was that they had a very different understanding of their role. They did not see themselves as steward of their field very much, if at all. Their role was to simply accomplish the curriculum and get the credit. I don’t say this with any condescension or ill will (though with more than a smattering of disappointment). If you read their work, at no point did it ever convey any attempt to teach others, or desire to move the field forward. Even if you exhorted them to write so that someone who had never taken the course might understand, it was largely beyond their comprehension to imagine what such a role and related skillset might include. They were extensively counter-prepared for the role by their prior experience.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that any employee’s tendency to ponder new ideas, think that they are an entirely reasonable thing to ponder and discuss, and their ability to raise them at the right time in the right way to the right people, depends fundamentally on what they think THEIR “role” in the organization is. If they think their role is to do what management says, get good performance reviews, raises and promotions, and eventually retire comfortably, it is unlikely they will ponder “better ways of doing things” whilst munching on a sandwich and staring out the window over lunch.

Certainly, there WILL be people whom you can’t stop from thinking of stuff, no matter how hard you try. But the lion’s share will require constant daily reminding by pervasive signs and omens that “doing what we do, more effectively and efficiently, whenever possible, and keeping the institution alive and growing, is what we do here”, that everyone shares stewardship of the institution at some level, and that visioning the institution is not just in the job description of a few select individuals. If you want ideas from people, they have to understand deep in their soul that it is their role to have them and present them

ed bernacki

I was one of those people who could look at something, question things about it and then create some ideas. My first boss was brilliant. To stop me from running into his office every time I had idea, he suggested I write them down and we would have a weekly ideas meeting. Each week I would bring a list of ideas that I came up that week. He listened to them. In the process of discussing these ideas some simply rose to the top — he often then said, “think about this idea for next week and come back with a full page of notes on the idea.”
Sometimes I ended creating several pages of how the idea could work, what we would have look out for, etc. Other times he gave me thinking challenges — “can you find some ideas to do this….better?”
I joined one of the big international consulting firms as my second job.
I asked, “when are your idea meeting?” Guess what I heard………
I later discovered how rare it was to have a boss who actually wanted new ideas.
If you are a boss who wants idea, can I work for you?