There are few truly innovative organizations, with the agility and ability to break new ground.
For example, at one of the world’s largest technology companies, a geographic team experimented with a finance line to fund its own products — an innovation that was out of character for the venerable firm. The idea took off, and the new capital unit generated $1 billion in new income its first year. The corporate sales group quickly grabbed control of this skunkworks project, and in its second year — under the corporate group’s care — the project saw a 90% drop in revenue. An executive joked, “We can’t help ourselves. We hate outliers.”
Employees in every company have ingenuity, drive and passion to give. Your organization has employees walking your halls who have great ideas in their pockets, but they will not pull them out until they feel like partners in the organization. To make them feel like partners, training departments must find creative ways to facilitate the sharing of ideas between leaders and their team members.
Of course, the advice to actively solicit input from employees is not new, but organizations rarely do it well. Even more rare are leaders who follow through on employees’ suggestions. Of course, many ideas won’t be viable, and some workers might be upset if their contributions aren’t acted upon. That’s why leaders must understand the need to openly discuss with their people the reasons their ideas are not feasible and convey authentic appreciation for their input, assuring them they’ve given them thoughtful consideration.
One organization with ability to cull positive ideas from employees is Texas Roadhouse. The company has about 80,000 employees and is one of the casual dining industry’s most profitable businesses — and it doesn’t spend a dime on major media advertising.
The secret to Texas Roadhouse’s success? It has trained leaders to, “get your a– out of the office and go visit the people in the stores, or wherever you have your business,” said Kent Taylor, founder, chief executive officer and chairman. “And when you see a great idea, you write that person a note and thank them. I must have sent thirty notes already this month.”
The Texas Roadhouse training team has developed a culture of listening to ideas at all levels, especially at the front lines, Taylor says, because no one gave him the time of day when he was working his way up in other restaurant chains. Today, every one of his store operators has his cell number, and they aren’t afraid to use it.
“I got a call recently from one of our area managers,” Taylor said. “We serve mac and cheese on our kids’ menu, and his daughter had created this little book about why she thought our mac and cheese sucks. We are now having the restaurants in his market test a new made-from-scratch mac and cheese. I thought it was cool that he felt safe enough to send me that.”
Texas Roadhouse leaders also actively seek feedback from the employees who work directly with customers. On many Sunday nights (after the weekend rush), Taylor calls stores at random to talk to half a dozen servers and ask if guests like or dislike new menu items. When he visits a restaurant, his first stop is with the servers. Then, he makes his way to the meat room, then the kitchen line and then to the store manager. “I know if the manager is full of s— or not by then because I’ve already talked to the other people,” he said.
Guidelines for Leaders
The best training teams provide guidelines for getting ideas out of people’s pockets. One of the first concepts they train their leaders on is avoiding the “over-ask” — expecting too much from employees and asking questions out of their purview, such as, “How can we solve our systemic technology problems?”. Only a few people in your entire organization would have ideas about solving something so complex, and that kind of big ask might make people feel diminished.
Another guideline: Make sure the specificity fits, so that you ask the right question to the right people in the right way. For instance, “How might we reduce marketing costs?” is a question focused on soliciting ideas to cut sales and marketing expenses. You might ask it of anyone even remotely involved in the process of promoting your goods. However, asking, “How might we improve our brand image and name recognition in the most cost-effective ways?” may be more apt if you are hoping for blue-sky, low-cost solutions to improving your reputation. Both can be effective ways of soliciting ideas, but one will work better than the other depending on whether your needs and expectations are specific (cutting costs for the short term) or general (creating a larger presence in the market while being prudent with spending).
Every day, workers face challenges in their work, and each of the problems they must solve can spark ideas for improvements. The best training departments actively help leaders spot ideas to improve performance and empower workers to speak up. Amazon, for instance, encourages employees to suggest any idea they think will make the company better, which is how software engineer Charlie Ward first suggested free shipping (now the popular Prime program). British Airways launched a virtual innovation initiative, asking for employee help to reduce emissions and cut fuel bills. One “out-there” idea was to reduce the weight of the planes by descaling toilet pipes — an idea that has cut fuel bills by almost $1 million annually.
In this way, innovative organizations like Texas Roadhouse, Amazon and British Airways have discovered that employees have more than their share of ideas. Once they’ve shared them, they take pride in contributing to the organization’s success.