How can we get useful ideas from employees?

Years ago when I was a newbie in a big accounting firm I remember being asked for ideas on how to improve the business.

At the time I thought that my bosses were looking for really clever ideas so I got together with a few other newbies and we spent hours conjuring up amazing stuff to turn the accounting industry on its head. Or so we thought. Turns out we had no useful ideas and the only suggestion that got picked up was to lose the Girovend card (which entitled the bearer to 10 free vending machine coffees a week; don’t you miss the good old days?)

Fifteen years later and it was me asking a bunch of newbies in a big accounting firm for ideas on what we could do better. A few weeks later. Same thing. Lots of grandiose ideas about changing the world but nothing very practical or insightful.

I grumbled about the ideas (or lack thereof) to a wise old friend who explained where I had gone wrong. “It’s because,” he said, “your employees are trying to impress you.”

I doubted that. But he went on to explain how new or junior employees don’t submit useful day-to-day ideas because they think that if they do they’ll be considered unimaginative and narrow-minded. Instead they offer up big ideas, designed to impress.

I thought back to the Girovend incident and I had to agree.

My guru went on to give me some advice, which I’ve used and shared to great effect ever since. Essentially it is this: When asking junior or new employees for ideas, be specific about the problem that you want the ideas to solve.

It works best if you ask a question, and here are four to start with:

  • What is the stupidest thing you have seen us do? What should we do instead?
  • For every activity that you do what would happen if we stopped doing it? Would that matter?
  • Think of your five biggest activities, what could we do to make them run faster or cheaper?
  • What do we do too well?

Employees are a fantastic source of great ideas, especially about the inner workings of the business. But if you don’t ask them for practical ideas about specific areas you’ll miss the gems.

Julia Bickerstaff‘s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses: Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of How to Bake a Business and was a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has an economics degree from The London School of Economics (London University).

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