How to Create Smart Organizations
Bureaucracy, fear, lethargy, lousy leaders, and antiquated systems make organizations dumb.
Dumb organizations are filled with smart people.
When was the last time one of your team members offered an unrequested idea?
Lousy leaders don’t want ideas because ideas feel distracting, disruptive, and inefficient.
Organizations that stifle ideas grow dumber and dumber.
Death to ideas:
Someone makes a suggestion and you say, “That’s a good idea.” But, that’s the end of it. How many more suggestions will that person make?
Without follow through, ideas stop flowing.
Don’t congratulate yourself when you succeed in shutting down idea-givers. You just chipped away at your future.
Ignore their ideas and they’ll stop offering ideas.
6 dangers of idea-killing leadership:
- Lower status. Every idea you kill makes others respect you less and fear you more.
- Distance between management and employees.
- Solidifying the status quo.
- Sending the message that you don’t care.
- Telling workers they don’t matter.
- Dumb organizations.
Suggestion boxes are stupid ideas. If you have one, destroy it.
If it’s difficult to identify and implement ideas in your organization, your organization grows dumber as the moments pass.
Honor ideas by developing idea systems.
- The people closest to the work know more about the work than you. 80% of ideas come from front-line people who have dirty hands.
- A “make no waves” culture stinks of bureaucracy and decay.
- Establish an idea meeting for teams or departments where ideas are discussed and implementation actions are decided.
- Hang an idea board where teams collect and process ideas. Visibility informs, empowers, and creates accountability.
What would happen in your organization if you began a conversation about generating, capturing, and implementing ideas? Would that conversation die on the vine?
Smart organizations love, nurture, and implement ideas.
Why don’t organizations aggressively pursue ideas?
What does your organization do to invite, capture, evaluate, and implement ideas?
Learn more by reading: “The Idea-Driven Organization.”
Couldn’t agree more, Dan. As the leader of a large, distributed team, in a large, distributed organisation, that has historically been led / managed through top-down hierarchy, I can say from experience that this is really difficult to put into practice, but fundamentally important for all of the reasons in your top 6 list. We are really wrestling with how to do this quickly.
we have monthly “idea” meetings with each dept. every one is expected to come with something, no matter how trivial – 95% don’t make any sense, but it is worth it for that 5% good ideas
I completely agree that front line people will generate most of the ideas as they know most explicitly where the process breakdowns occur and where the customer experience is usually damaged.
We are trying to make it work by using technology – effectively using an internal version of “FaceBook” to make it easy for distributed colleagues to connect with each other. The hard part is that many of them with ideas don’t know to whom they should be putting those ideas. So they post them and wait. And wait. And wait. We’re experimenting now with creating an internal team of “matchmakers” that simply introduce those with ideas to those who would benefit from those ideas. We know it’s not sustainable, so building a “connector” database in the background that will hopefully make it easier for this to happen automatically. Lots to do.
Great Stuff! As a pastor of a growing church it would be impossible to manage all of the ministries and people if each one didn’t feel like an “owner”. Churches are unique in that everyone who attends – “the employees” – feels like they are a leader and person of influence whose preferences need to be met. Top down leadership destroys churches. Servant leadership that values the ideas of everyone and creates opportunities for implementation is making our church thrive.
Smart people work in dumb organizations …
I work in the fable “emperor has no clothes” … kinda the same thing ….
I agree that you have to provide systems or processes to obtain feedback, evaluate and manage the ideas to implementation. It’s another tone-at-the-top area- your senior team must create a culture and dialogue of how can we do this better, more efficiently, simpler, etc. Dumb organizations reward knowledge trappers with stars and longevity awards. Smart organizations recognize key ideas that generate change and improvements to the current systems. Great reminder- thanks!!
Happy right now!!! Compelling future firmly planted in my mind pulling me to it.
Yep that about covers it.
Even worse is when leadership makes an employee’s idea their own and does not recognize and give credit where due. They do not realize the extent of the damage to employee trust and buy-in. They become the “boss” and not the “leader”.
I had a supervisor before that was very top-down driven. If it wasn’t his idea, then it wasn’t worth considering. I learned a lot about what not to do as a leader from him.
Even worse is when leadership makes an employee’s idea their own and does not recognize and give credit where due. They do not realize the extent of the damage to employee trust and buy-in. They become the “boss” and not the “leader”.
This is a big problem in government. The employees are beaten down by moutains of regulations and procedures that become the purpose of their existence. Managers are caught in the trap of addressing operations, but ignoring vision. Those at the top are unable to deal with ideas that don’t fit the standard box. We have a lot of work to do.
Putting up an idea board this evening – great idea.
I really believe in this article. I work with the managers that report to me not to stifle peoples’ ideas. Even if it is something we couldn’t do for business reasons, don’t argue with themp; make them feel heard. You never know where the next big thing will come from.
Great article and I couldn’t agree more. I was promoted to the lead position for a department in the public sector approximately a year ago. One of our first moves was to establish a committee for line staff (only) to develop and foster new ideas for the department. Throughout my 25 year career, I have found that most ideas that have had a profound impact on our departments success occurred at the line staff level, not administration. The intrinsic value staff gain from having a voice in the direction of our department has greatly enhanced the overall atmosphere of our department as well.
“Lower status. Every idea you kill makes others respect you less and fear you more.” This is my favorite line of the day. Lowering everyone else’s status lowers the leader’s status as well and increases the distance between the leader and the front lines.
Why don’t organizations agressively pursue ideas?… Most organizations are not set up to take ideas. Pursuit takes time and most leadership either does not have the time to follow up or does not understand the concept of using everyone’s brain. My current supervisor falls into this category. She is so busy taking care of the big boss that she rarely has time for a 30 second conversation. I have several intelligent co-workers who be great at bringing more effieciency to their job and everyone else’s job but lack of communication and the always present, “Don’t say too much or you will disturb the status quo” keeps our section of the department from serving the way it could. The Law of the Lid applies here as it does with most organizations that dont pursue ideas. Leaderships inability to pop the lid off of their organization by learning and implementing new leadership skills will always produce what they already have….
Shane, I hear your frustration at a boss who kowtows upwards while giving little time to those who do the work for her.
One of the ways to break that is to deliberately lead from the middle by:
1) Providing unsolicited ideas or solutions in writing in a non-threatening way. I like to write “white papers” on issues that I send to my boss, and allow him to decide if he wants to act on them. It is not important that I get credit for these ideas, but that I plant the seed without causing him organizational embarrassment.
2) Work hard at being personally available for others, not to show the boss off, but to find ways to get things done even if the boss doesn’t lead or isn’t engages. Engagement, like a spark, is contagious. There is no resource more scarce or inelastic than time. If we choose to give time to our family, our peers, those who report to us, and our boss, we are honoring them with part of our life that we can never get back. That honor is powerful, and will produce organizational results, even if the boss is not engaged. You can’t change your boss’ lack of leadership, but you can humbly and effectively influence the organization to move forwards in spite of them. If the only impediment to organizational effectiveness becomes your boss, she will either leave, get out of the way, get pushed out of the way, or join the tide.
I couldn’t agree more. And it is a compounded problem when you oversee a department and encourage ideas, but the ‘big boss’ doesn’t value the idea-generating staff/programs you do with your staff.
Something “idea killing leadership” forget about is the opportunities for intangible benefit. They include the missed potentials of growth and/or revenue opportunity and the willingness of employees wanting to contribute to the successes of the business, not because they have to (there is a big difference relating to return on employee investment). Thanks Dan for sharing a great article.
Along with encouraging ideas, a leader must:
1) Stay the course on purpose and focus. Convey the principle that ideas are welcome, but they must a) contribute to the organization’s purpose b) prioritized to make best use of scarce resources. The inevitable outcome of soliciting ideas is that there will be far more of them, and so far more “no’s”, but the ones that are accepted will be better.
2) Ensure a fair and efficient process for screening of ideas, with proper stage gates. Every idea must receive due process, and every response must be documented. Most ideas will be rejected as being suboptimal for reasons of resource constraint, time constraints, being impractical, or not being focused on the organization’s purpose. While ideas will be rejected, people must not be.
3) Ensure that the organization recognizes and implements ideas without regards to the political level of the person who generated the idea.
4) Praise both results and efforts. It is tempting to praise results only, but actually more important to praise honest effort. Many times results are fortuitous. The adage “genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” is true. Leaders should praise focused perspiration more than enlightened inspiration.
Thanks for this blog, Dan. I find it to be a great source of ideas in itself.
I need to print out the “Idea Killers” and keep them in my capture-tool!
I like when you don’t mince your words Dan!
Dan, the last several of your posts are ringing hard in my head and heart this morning. Thank you for what you do. I read your posts every work day, and I have to say that you have encouraged me to look for another job, to work hard to be a part of the team, and to be bold when necessary.
As for today’s post, nothing kills my “innovative spirit” like a manager telling me “good idea” and it dying on his or her desk. All you ever have to do if you want to see an “idea-dead” environment, is to work in a department or company where the manager is in his or her office all day and only communicates when decisions have already been made. That’s suck positivity, enjoyment, and innovation right out of there. Trust me, I know from experience.
Thought provoking! Thanks, as always, Dan!
We are in the process of organizing to a point that we can replicate our organization on another location. I have been so focused on this initiative that I have not nurtured the organization as I should. Replicating a withering plant produces a withering garden.
Excuse me Dan… I need to go water my plant.
I am so looking forward to the day I work for a smart organization! Thanks for helping me keep my eyes wide open and my head clear while I hunt!
This reminds me of something I read – I can’t remember the author at the moment – that stated good leaders always let the best idea win, even if (and maybe especially if) it isn’t their own. But in order for that to happen, a culture must be established providing the freedom and confidence among those on the front lines to offer ideas to leadership/management.
Great thoughts! I have found that working in a non profit most ideas are squashed because of budget. There is no room to pursue other things. The only problem is that you quickly become budget driven rather than vision driven.
Our organization’s management philosophy states that we create an environment where employees feel empowered to take calculated risks, within their training and supervision. Within that framework, we believe those who perform the work are in the best position to determine how the work should be completed. If employees make a mistake by taking a calculated risk we support them and help them learn from the mistake in order to not repeat it. It is our belief that this type of environment will foster creativity and innovation.
The key, however, is to create such an environment. If we are not routinely encouraging creative problem solving and allowing staff to take risks, we cannot be successful. If the actions of our leaders do not support this philosophy, then it is meaningless.
A friend of mine talks about an idea garden where ideas can be sown and given some time may develop into something more. Some ideas need care, fertilization, nurture, while others spring up and almost go on there own. Being open to new ideas also expresses humility. I do not know everything! Thanks, Dan!
As you noted, without follow through, good ideas die (and will rarely resurface because no one is really listening) but in keeping with this line of thought, a lack of follow through on new initiatives (even if they are presented from the top down) result in ineffective (or limited) implementation. Outside the work world, think of the parent or teacher who threatens consequences but never actually delivers on those threats. Without follow-through, nothing changes for the better. I’m an old PE teacher and coach so I think about the performance of physical skills: without follow through on a throw or kick or a batting swing, the ball goes no where. So many analogies could be presented here…. Being open to possibilities and then following through on ideas, initiatives, or the enforcement of expectations increases the chances of success and good will.
How do you discern which ideas are worth pursuing and which are left on the ideas board?
Thanks Duane. Great question. The book has several suggestions. The ones that I like best have to do with giving control of implementing ideas to the people closest to them. There are several illustrations of teams who choose the ideas they want to implement.
There are other concerns like budges, policies, and support from IT, for example.
As I respond to your comment, it reminds me that people need more information in order to successful evaluate and implement ideas. Secretive organizations will struggle.
Three advantages to having people closest to ideas implement them:
1) They take ownership for implementation, with its inherent problems, lack of resources and sense of accomplishment/discouragement when things go well or not.
2) They often use fewer resources across the organization.
3) There are far fewer “it would be nice if” ideas which if not implemented cause frustration.
Great article. I once heard a story about Walt Disney. He was asked why he spent so much time speaking with his front line employees (custodial staff, laundry employees, ticket takers, food vendors, etc.). He said that he never knew who would give him his next great idea. There are so many elements to this: humility, being approachable, taking time to show genuine interest in your employees, and being willing to look at things from others’ perspectives.
I love the concept of idea boards and idea meetings. So much creativity lies dormant in the daily grind of meetings and typical work. Setting aside a time to think outside of the box would benefit many organizations.
Another idea killer… staff are invited to an ideas session that is structured it in a way that they can only contribute management ideas back to management.
I’ve been using an idea board for a couple of weeks now, and it’s almost full. Time to collect the thoughts and get to work. I’m happy it filled quickly: I work in a place where many of us have forgotten what it’s like to dare to dream. Your thoughts will help us move into the next phase.
I’d like to hear more about how to talk about the ideas that don’t make it into action (Marc briefly addresses this above). When that happens, leadership often gets accused of “not listening,” as though listening only happens when someone does what we want, when we want, and how we want.
At our company, we commit to giving feedback to all responses as soon as possible, but not to enacting all suggestions. The initial screening is by a two-person team comprised of a person in applications engineering and another who leads R&D. The first is practical with a business sense, the second a deep technical thinker. Both are well-liked and trusted. Ideas that are rejected can be introduced by going to a manager and selling them, so people feel there is due process.
So far, this has worked well in promoting both innovation and a sense of participation in outcomes. It is not as formal or sophisticated as the Toyota production system, but we are a 150 person pre-revenue company, so don’t have Toyota’s resources.
Thanks for the follow up, Marc. I like the distinction between timely feedback and then responses about implementation. It sounds like, too, that this happens in an arena that’s a little more formal than spit-balling sessions, which seems to be more the norm where I work. I’ll think about crafting the idea opportunities a little more. Formal doesn’t have to be stifling, and some structure can cut out mere wishful thinking from general idea creation.
Remember – “A fish rots from the head” so while an organization can be successful short-term with dumb people, but it won’t be successful long-term. An organization needs to be organic with its leadership approach and create an environment that is open to debate, and mistakes if it is truly to grow. Many times people / organizations learn as much if not more from the mistakes they make as they do from their successes.
I like to give credit to the individuals, they feel empowered and appreciated. More then that they begin to contribute more.
I’m a High Performance and Leadership Expert, and it is one of my missions to open the eyes of leaders and show them that they can increase their corporate performance dramatically by showing their employees that they value their contribution, including them in decision-making, empowering and inspiring them.
My formula is: If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients, which will take care of your bottom line (revenue/shareholders)
Wonder if dinosauric (new word) organizations, or any organization needs within their PI dept a mini-kickstarter format?
Eschewing the open-bottomed suggestion box that has a trash can underneath it, Kickstarter’s approaches have certainly worked.
When ‘that’s a good idea’ gets tossed out there, it automatically goes to an app that formats up the criteria for screening and if it passes the screening rolls into a project manager process.
Warning manager of the effect of idea killing seems to reinforce their behaviors.
An idea board and idea sessions stimulate creativity to resolve issues before they become problems and allow people to participate in visioning. Everyone benefits as ideas are shared, considered, and hopefully some are implemented.
Arrogant leaders ignore the opinions front line workers. When a leader does not fear ideas that come from below, then the organization gains strength and is more resilient to change.
The idea board – what a great idea!
Without ideas, how does a team or organization improve? I think the fear lies in leaders feeling inadequate when someone comes to them with an idea (especially when the idea has value) and fearing change. I like the earlier post that everyone is expected to come to a meeting with something – then everyone feels value in their organization. Great reminder about cultivating creativing and growing leaders, rather than creating a dictatorship.
Great points all. To answer your question “Why don’t organizations aggressively pursue ideas?” at least one answer can be summed up in three short words: fear of change. Ideas challenge the staus quo, which should led to change, improvement and growth. But alas, too many “leaders” do not wish to change, affect improvement and grow, either their people or their organizations. Complacency is easy, and unfortunatley, is all too readily accepted.
Your articles and insights are great – keep them up.
This is one of the most important posts I’ve read. I work in an office where ideas are welcome. Not all of them come to life, but the ones that do are successful and help to grow the company. when you foster an environment like that, people become more interested in their jobs and ideas flow freely creating forward momentum at every step.
I read your blog every day Dan! I am so thankful for it!
Follow through is important in every part of business, but this is a tough area. Ideas come in all sizes and qualities and it is difficult to keep from offending the employee of a rejected idea.
I’ve found the best way to handle ideas is to put the employee in charge of the pre-implementation thought process. This includes a checklist of possible successes and failures, whether or not the idea has been pitched before and why it wasn’t implemented, the approximate cost, and information on what departments will be affected- positively or negatively.
This gets the employee thinking beyond his/her needs and a good view of the larger picture. Make sure they have a deadline to complete their research and and open door from you for questions and concerns.
Love this post!! Came at a time when I just recently asked our CEO to consider some focus groups within the company as a way to create an idea factory. It can be from creating playlists for our consumers or a new workout to understanding different types of customers and how we can meet there needs. I would love to see teams across the company come together for these groups.
Our CEO, Ray Floyd, who led operations at a high level at GM, Exxon, and Suncor, has written an excellent book on the subject. The link is http://www.amazon.com/Culture-Rapid-Improvement-Sustaining-Workforce-ebook/product-reviews/B003NX733I/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1
I love the Idea Board! How creative and constantly flowing with new ideas! even the most timid person could put something up on the Idea Board!
Ego driven is no way to make business decisions…
Some organizations are so focused on results that all they can hear is solutions and not ideas. To me ideas are part of the innovation and solution creation. Somehow some companies make people believe that idea generation and discussion is a waste of time because “nothing” is getting done.
For a idea generator like me, this culture is limiting, frustrating, and demotivating. Hard to be positive in an environment like this one. But somehow I manage.
The real question is how to develop this type of organization within the bureaucracy of the federal government. I think the answer is mostly about investing time in people, but that’s the most limiting resource of all.
I think the organizations that don’t pursue new ideas have the mentality of “Our ideas got us where we are today. We don’t need your small idea!”
To which I like to say, “What got you here today won’t get you there tomorrow.”
Also, I’m glad to see more quality comments on this post. The last time you did a ‘comment for a chance to win a free book’ brought in so many low quality comments. I was hesitant to join the conversation at first but then I saw people actually engaging with what you wrote.
Great post! It’s very unfortunate that so many organizations don’t realize that “none of us are smarter than all of us” Ken Blanchard I think.
I have left organizations before due to the conditions of the environment described.
#3 Danger – Solidifying the status quo. Or normalizing the abnormality. The key is to make small achievements to show how change can happen.
Dan, My observation are sayjng there is no limit in ideas. The problem is execution. Even after a proper business plan the new ideas can not be implemented due to various reason like fear of failure. This irrelevant to this article but could not stop my self to write you. Thanks.
The first step in a smart organization is the person at the top-in my case as a basketball coach-the Athletic Director-supporting his or her coaches and student athletes. Nothing positive will happen if that is not in place. After that, the Head Coach has to make his assistants want to work hard-to go the extra mile-especially for the athletes. Everything has to be personal to show them you care. That’s why I tell recruits that I dislike communicatiing via text and email because it’s too impersonal. How are you supposed to build trust if you’re not verbally communicating before meeting face to face? With all that in place, the student athletes do what they’re supposed to do on and off the court because they know people have their backs.
This articles ties really well into two concepts that I personally believe greatly increase the chance of success in work and life- being vigilant (as in the approach that High Reliability Organizations (HROs) apply) and having a growth mindset. Two books that come to mind- Weick and Sutcliffe wrote a book Managing the Unexpected and Carol Dweck on the topic of mindset. These books are great and set a foundation for The Idea-Driven Organization. Great concepts with broad application.
I think that giving ourselves permission to stop doing other efforts in order to pursue new and perhaps more useful ideas is a factor. It is easy to get caught up in the day to day work and believe it is the ‘only’ way to work effectively.
Beware of saying, “We already tried that,” especially to newer team members. Maybe timing was an issue. Maybe you can learn from the past experience and refocus or refine the idea. Maybe the new person has a new perspective. Maybe a discussion of the idea and previous effort will spark other ideas. Instead of cutting off the idea flow, generate more ideas with, “That sounds similar to … What can we do differently to be more effective?”
Simply LISTEN! Often the answers are right in front of you. Take time to understand what people in the organization know and feel.
Amen! We currently have a BPO system in place that invites all parties in our organization to put forth Business Practice Optimization ideas. It has been wildly successful. I fully believe when you allow people space to be creative with solutions, they will have greater appreciation for the project and often times a better attitude equates to better performance. Great post.
Always good stuff in this blog! I’m glad you said get rid of the suggestion box. And I like the idea meeting suggestion. The foundation of any method of getting the best ideas is building a culture where they are considered and implemented or feedback is provided about why it wasn’t, when it will be or how it will be tweaked.
Leadership is a fusion of art and science. Many tasked leaders no longer effectively lead because of the upper-level echelon imposing an agenda instead of inspiring more effective and meaningful change.
I like Patrick Lencioni’s “The Advantage” and how he differentiates between the smart and the healthy in organizations. An organization is only able to take full advantage of the smart if the organization is really healthy. Minimizing politics and confusion and building trust and accountability in a collaborative, respectful environment goes a long way in creating/maintaining the healthy.
In a similar fashion, military leadership training I received in the Air Force, says there are mission-oriented leaders (who sometimes get the job done at the expense of people) and people-oriented leaders (who lean so much toward people the mission doesn’t get accomplished) and the best leaders who take balanced care of people so the people can take care of the mission.
In over 30 years working in public sector, the biggest missing element in almost any organization I have worked in has been a leadership team that likes the people enough to have the hard and not-so-hard conversations about performance and expectations in a timely manner. Empowerment without accountability has just as many problems as accountability without empowerment.
Well this is a great to drive a conversation! I work for a private large company that has always rewarded employees for ideas that get implemented…In cash and recognition. But I like the idea of a process for funnel ing ideas on a regular basis…a company shared white board that indexes ideas. Ideas to get ideas….how ironic.
These are really great ideas – I love the suggestion of a visual reminder to help generate even more brainstorming.
I have found that insecure leaders also don’t allow ideas other than their own. As they feel it makes others more important than them or that others want their position . Instead of embracing & empowering them they see them as competition & try & get rid of them. In most cases they have lost their best asset & as you have stated are dumb & affecting their own future.
When you speak of arrogant leaders I have found that these are often “the bullies” in workplace & leadership in organisations ,
One of the reasons why my business failed is that I didn’t act on many of the ideas that came from our employees. They had all been with the company 10-20 years before we assumed ownership of it. At first, I listened to them and tried to act on most of their ideas, but as time went on I became less and less responsive to their suggestions. Eventually, the business had to close. I’ve recently started another business and will not make that mistake again.
My organization is actively trying to increase the performance measure “I am encouraged to come up with better ways of doing things”. Our employee survey showed that we declined in this area quite a bit since the last survey and it was pretty mediocre to begin with. When ideas fall into black holes everyone loses. Thanks for the timely suggestions. I am about to “keep calm and fix what bugs me.” (One of our mantra’s at work).
Thank you Dan. Your blog is my virtual management school .
A culture of appreciation needs to be in place so that idea offerers feel safe in doing so and won’t be ridiculed if their ideas are viewed publicly by colleagues. I love these ideas. 🙂
We, as leaders, must be willing to step back and be be vulnerable for a moment. We don’t know it all, but we are willing to learn. The day that I stop seeking new knowledge about my field is the day that I MUST change my field. I want each of my direct reports to know that if a question comes up that needs researched, I am going to be right there with them modeling how to solve this issue. Dan, as always, thanks for your 300 words or less of wisdom .
At my former company, we heard the same: I have a good idea, but it gets stuck at the manager. We set up ways that people can submit their ideas independent of the manager and have a group of subject matter experts look at the idea. If it was considered a good idea (according some criteria), it got a sponsor who ensured the idea was carried out. This way we got many ideas submitted. Another way to collect them was through a World Cafe inspired set up, with an open ambiance, where people could talk (get to know each other!) and write down ideas inspired by the conversations.
True. We are having similar problems in our company when started to grow fast. Trying to transform to network organization to keep startup atmosphere
We have created a Disrupt Day that we hold a couple times a day. The ideas are submitted and implemented but the front line technologists. As I continue to climb the ladder, I am committed to staying true to operational excellence and continue improvement to technology, process and people.
Unfortunately the systems problems that exist in most organizations seem to fall victim to the people who don’t interface with the issue at hand day in and day out: The Decision Makers. At the same time, aggressively pursuing ideas means that change is inevitable. Perhaps managers (not to be confused with leaders!) are too lazy, afraid, or hesitant to induce change because of the challenges associated with that process. It becomes a vicious cycle that the organization can’t escape.
Sometimes it’s easier to believe that the organization mimics Wonderland and that you’re surrounded by mad hatters.
Money don’t make you rich, its an idea