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Encouraging Bright Ideas

Debunking myths about your staff's creativity.

by Frank Stapleton, President of MacPherson's (July 30, 2004)

(Note: Kate is a mid-level manager for a major industry company.)

(Note: Frank originally wrote this for AriFAX, MacPherson's email customer newsletter. It has been slightly edited.)

Companies need ideas in order to be successful, but what is the best way to generate them? I recently read a Fortune Magazine review of a new book, Ideas Are Free, that investigates what it takes to get people into generating ideas. Think you are good at making the most of your team’s brainpower? Answer "true" or "false" to the following statements and find out:

1. Big ideas are where the action is.

2. Managers are in the best position to come up with ideas on how to improve business.

3. Small ideas are not worth a manager’s time.

4. Without rewards, employees won’t offer ideas.

5. The best way to encourage innovative thinking is to promise financial rewards based on the monetary value of the ideas.

6. An informal approach to gathering ideas works best.

7. Suggestion boxes are an effective way to encourage new ideas.

8. Creativity is essential to innovation.

9. Along with good ideas come a lot of bad ones that waste everyone’s time.

If you answered "true" to any of the questions, think again. These notions are popular, but wrong according to the research by Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder, business school professors and the book’s authors. They illustrates how such schemes can backfire, sometimes by encouraging cheating or tangling tender egos.

Schroeder says most people offer ideas because they want to solve problems and be perceived as valuable to the team. You don’t need to bribe them. The authors also debunk the value of blockbuster ideas vs. the cumulative effect of more modest suggestions. What does work, they said, are structured forums where the people doing the work discuss ideas so that you can get the input from everyone who is involved.

MacPherson's style.

For about 15 years, the cornerstone of my team-building effort at MacPherson’s has been a regular meeting I call Frank’s Forum. It involves small groups of employees from different departments meeting with just me. There are no supervisors in between to help me understand their people’s true feelings, just the feelings themselves in the employees' own words.

It began after an employee survey determined that while our company did a great job of spelling out the company mission, we were not so talented at hearing our people’s suggestions and concerns. As the book aptly points out, people who feel they have input and influence in the operation of the company feel better about their jobs and tend to contribute more. Here’s how Frank's Forum works:

Participants are selected at random by their supervisors, with the goal that in time everyone will get a regular chance to air their ideas or concerns. In a quiet, private meeting space, I introduce the concept by telling the history, purpose, and value of the Forum. I explain that it is a chance to tell me, the head of the company, directly how they feel. They can spout off about ideas that they feel have not been seriously considered, describe a less than supportive colleague or supervisor, or ask tough questions about our company or the art supply world in general. Everything is fair game.

I have very few rules, but one is for the team member’s supervisors: no negative repercussions for anything that was said in the meeting. If there is, I will never hear another honest thought from the team. There is nothing more difficult for managers than having their people tell the boss that they are less than perfect. I often hear the supervisor explaining to me that this or that person is negative or a complainer to punctuate the fact that the complainer’s words should be put in the proper perspective.

I like to tell Forum members that, in general, the supervisors and I are paid to separate ideas, suggestions, and comments from attitudes good or bad. Sure, we have feelings, and it hurts or irritates sometimes to have our shortcomings pointed out, but if we do not hear the bad news, how can we know what to fix?

The greatest value of the Forums is for our managers to hear the negative and positive thoughts of their people. For me, it shows that our company philosophy of openness, collaboration, enthusiasm, and teamwork is getting down to the trenches effectively. If a supervisor is unresponsive, for instance, it usually comes out. I always take notes and follow up with each supervisor and share the tone and specific concerns voiced in the forum.

It takes a pretty thick skin to hear some of the criticisms, but the value of the information has had a profound impact on how MacPherson’s will continue to be guided into the future. I have used this concept outside the company as well with specific groups of customers, and the result was just as valuable and remarkable. Perhaps with some adaptation, the idea could be reshaped for your own business to glean ideas to improve your business.

(Note: Frank can be contacted at 510-768-6600 and franks@macphersonart.com. For previous "Kate's" columns on management issues, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)



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