Have you ever said, “how did they think of that?”; “why didn’t I think of that?”; or maybe even “I thought of that a long time ago.”? Ideas are like the spark that starts a fire, if they aren’t given focus, resources and space they will just fade away. I can’t tell you the number of harebrained ideas I have in one day. But very few ever come to fruition. Mostly because I don’t focus on them long enough or with enough energy and resources to make them a reality. Sometimes it’s because they are just bad ideas or don’t bring enough value to justify the resources. But for those few that really burn in me I take the time to jot them down and begin to work on them. As a leader have you ever stopped and though about how many ideas everyone on your team has daily and what you are doing to help them move from spark to fire? Or worse, what are you doing to snuff them out before they see the light of day? What is that costing you, your team and your organization?
We have all seen suggestion boxes in offices where people are “encouraged” to write down their ideas for someone to review and if worthy they will get back to them. I wonder how many of these suggestions are really ideas about moving the organization forward and how many are just complaints because people don’t believe anything will ever be down about something. We all work in places where leadership has an open door policy but how many times have you used that to bring a true good idea to light in hopes of getting help implementing it. I know I have been guilty of having someone bring me an idea to which I tried to add on to or change to fit my thought pattern. So how do we do it better? First I think it starts with having a clear plan for encouraging ideas to be expressed. Next you plan for how you are going to support them, and finally you decide how you are going to communicate both the success and failures from them.
In trying to encourage ideas I have seen and heard of several different ways to do it. First you have to work with your management team and any peer leadership so that everyone is onboard. Many ideas never get beyond the water cooler so capturing them at the point of their spark is crucial. I want everyone on my team to feel like they can express ideas, have them heard and if appropriate, be given the authority and resources to execute on it. To do this you have to be listening for people wanting to express ideas and then ask questions about them. These questions have to be information or detail gathering. They can’t be based on what can’t or won’t be done. If you approach someone’s idea from a negative position you will discourage them from expressing ideas all together. This first step takes a lot of work and at first may not create great results but over time it is the foundation to do other things. Like maybe a FedEx Day or Innovation Contest.
Several years ago I read about a software firm that would announce at 5pm that the next day at 8am was “FedEx Day”, which meant that everyone had to come up with an idea, put together a plan or working demo and present it to the entire team. Then the team would vote up or down on whether the firm should follow through with the idea. All of the ideas voted for where then provided with the resources to be pursued. So why did they call it FedEx Day? Because everyone absolutely had to deliver something overnight, no excuses. I loved this idea and modified it for our internal use last year. We had everyone give a three minute presentation with no aides (no PowerPoint, flip charts or handouts) where they explained the idea or issue, their solution, who it benefited (clients, employees, partners) and what they felt it would take to implement. Then each employee voted for their top three ideas. The ideal with the most votes was implemented. We actually implemented several others as well but the goal was to see one great idea we all agreed on executed.
This brings me to the first thing I learned from doing this and the second step. Just the act of holding the contest and committing to implementing the idea was not enough. In some cases it could actually be worse than not holding the contest. You have to empower the person with the idea to be an integral part of the implementation. This should start with a plan for how you are going to execute and the timeline for doing it. This allows the person with the best vision of what the idea could/should become to be part of it and ensures you don’t move away from the original intent. As with most things you can’t stop everything else to focus on it exclusively, so setting a clear timeline for what will be done and when is critical to ensuring people don’t forget about it or expect things to be done faster than they can be. Resources are always limited and have to be allocated effectively and communicating the why and how allows everyone to focus effectively.
Once you have an idea and a plan you have to do what I talk about more than anything else which is communicate the idea, plan, timeline and desired outcomes as part of an ongoing effort. This needs to come from upper management if they are part of the strategic communication, direction management to their teams and preferably from the person who owns the idea and plan. This ensures everyone knows where you stand because as my brother is so fond of saying “If you don’t fill the vacuum of lack of details and information someone else will. And what they fill it with is most likely not correct or what you want”. For us this is done as part of our morning huddles, weekly meetings, email communications and all hands meetings. Never overlook a chance to update and communicate about where you are, what you are seeing and what is working and not working. Even with our best focus and intention we find times where we have allowed a initiative to not get enough attention in our communications and therefore end up stalling or becoming a “failure” in people’s eyes. When this happens you have to take ownership for the lack of communication and move the topic back to focus with a reset of the plan and expectations.
So the next time you have a great spark of an idea remember that you have to capture and support it if you want it to grow. You also have to do this for others if you want to achieve great things for your organization because it is only through the amplification of many people with many sparks that you start a fire that grows beyond your wildest dreams. What has been the craziest idea you have had but didn’t feel you could execute on? You never know, maybe I have had the same or similar idea and we might be able to work together to grow if from that first spark.