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Your Employees Know What’s Best — Are You Letting Them Tell You?

The smartest people in the room are no longer the leaders, they're the troops on the ground.

10Mar

In the new world economy of knowledge and technical skills, the smartest people in the room are no longer the leaders; they're the troops on the ground.

A company's individual contributors are the closest to the facts, the clients, the problems, and the solutions. They have firsthand knowledge of the complex realities of modern business and, therefore, have some of the best ideas of how to move companies forward.

My team is full of excellent UX designers, developers, and product managers. They've been writing code, creating products, and communicating with clients for years — and I'm not afraid to admit they can do these things better than I can. That's why we've created a culture that embraces thought diversity and, within it, processes, frameworks, and venues that encourage team members to present their ideas and rally around the best ones.

It's time for modern leaders to become curators of ideas. Show employees that their innovation and ability to execute are what control the destiny of the company. 

However, especially at larger organizations, what’s the best way to open the idea floodgates, and what do you do once thousands of ideas come flooding in?

Controlling the Floodgates

Every two weeks, my organization has a meeting in which employees are invited to share their thoughts on ongoing or potential projects. We make it clear that all opinions — positive or negative — are welcome and any employee from any department is welcome to attend.

Because we've created a safe environment for employees to courageously provide their perspectives, we have effectively opened the idea floodgates at our company. We hear countless brilliant ideas that will undoubtedly improve our trajectory, but we also hear ones that are irrelevant, unrealistic, or flat-out inappropriate.

Between the good, the bad, and the ugly, it has been pivotal to have a process in place that turns idea generation, assessment, unification, and execution into a group effort.

Here are the ingredients that go into our process and that can help you build yours:

Share your strategic vision and goals.

Help employees prefilter their ideas by making your overall strategic plan abundantly clear. Showcase how you aim to create value for customers today, tomorrow, and far into the future. More than 60% do not know their company’s goals — and these individuals are much less likely to generate relevant actionable ideas.

Your short-, medium-, and long-term goals will give employees a solid reference point — but it's your responsibility to deliver this information in a consumable, engaging format. To clarify and share my organization's goals, I've created a few well-designed documents that succinctly explain our big-picture vision and the various milestones we'll need to hit over time. They're posted all over the office like wall art, and they're referenced in nearly every companywide meeting.

I've actually created a template to help leaders clearly define and share their strategic goals with their teams.

Encourage aligned proactivity.

Once an organization's vision and goals are clarified, team members can proactively use them to validate the ideas they generate.They can take full ownership of the process and autonomously assess whether what they're proposing fits the direction the company wants to go.

'Aligned proactivity' is one of my organization's core values. It allows my team to rapidly generate ideas, confirm they align with our goals, and then drive their execution. The validation phase often involves discussions with the experts who will carry out the proposed initiative, weighing up their feedback, and acting accordingly. Once every involved party is on board with the project, the team can hit the gas pedal.

Role-model your decision-making process.

Through actions, words, and documents, articulate your personal decision-making process. Show how you decide whether an initiative is worth pursuing. This will help your employees climb into your head when developing their ideas and assess their viability.

In my decision-making process, I break down big ideas into their building blocks. Then, we evaluate each block's value, cost, and risk. It's not easy to role-model this approach, but I've created a decision framework and a feature prioritization framework to illustrate it. These documents show employees how I determine the risks, rewards, and overall necessity of new endeavors.

Between these two strategies, my team has grown increasingly confident in the ideas it generates. People feel empowered to present ideas without approval because they can predict what our leadership team will think about them.

Create a structured approval and feedback loop.

Once employees are empowered to confidently raise relevant ideas, it's important to have an evaluation process that sends these concepts to the experts who will spearhead the execution efforts. These individuals should have final say on the project and determine its urgency.

We use a task management program that requires users to input their ideas in a very specific way. From there, they go through multiple phases: small committees looking at them, prioritizing them, and asking questions back to the original submitter. If it's a small, easy idea, it may be approved right there on the spot. Larger, more complex or expensive ideas can require lots of back and forth.

It’s not about you anymore; it’s about your employees. The best, longest-living businesses will hire amazing talent, promote cultures of autonomy, and teach their teams how to generate and validate ideas with high velocity.

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