01 September 2011

Truck Stuck! Now What?

I think we're all familiar with the story of Truck Stuck by Sallie Wolfe. It's a charming children's book in which the kids are the heroes, figuring out a creative solution to get the truck unstuck.

Where do ideas come from in your organization?

Or, to be more precise, who's ALLOWED to have an idea?

In far too many associations, the answer is definitely not "anyone!"

Are ideas only the province of a certain department? The CEO? The VPs? The Board? Are people only allowed to express ideas that relate directly to their own areas of responsibility?

My point? Anyone can have a good idea, about anything, at any time, whether it's the mail clerk realizing a way to make your direct mail marketing campaign more effective or an IT tech coming up with a great team building idea or kids figuring out that you need to let the air out of the truck's tires for it to pass.

We need to make sure we give a fair audience to ideas, no matter where they come from.

Treat them all equally, implement them when you can, encourage your staff and colleagues either way, and always, always, always give credit.


Jeffrey Cufaude said...

This reminds me of the IDEO grocery cart video in which they stress looking at the quality of the idea and not evaluating its source.

A lot of researchers talk about innovative ideas coming from the periphery, so it makes sense that organizations should embrace collecting ideas from as many sources as possible. To make that more feasible, they need to put an idea management system in place so that they aren't overwhelmed by all the possibilities.

Sites like http://www.ideascale.com offer one approach and we can see something similar in action at http://www.mystarbucksidea.com or http://www.openideo.com. Some of the reading I've done suggests that we best tap into the wisdom of the crowd when we ask them to submit ideas that meet certain criteria, i.e., "We're looking for ideas that would allow us to increase microvolunteering while ensuring work gets done in a timely manner." You want to provide enough info to focus the thinking, yet leave it open enough to not impede interesting submissions.

SouthernSibyll said...

Definitely! And I think the next question should be "what processes do you have in place to make sure they feel empowered to have ideas?"

In my experience brainstorming and idea-generation are often confined to strategic planning sessions or budgeting meetings (usually with only the most senior management in the room). If someone lower on the staff had an idea (even a great one), there would be no resources to activate it. The idea might have to wait or year or never get activated at all, which was de facto disempowerment. Great ideas need momentum to succeed!

Companies/associations need to think long and hard about how change can and should happen in their organizations. Consider who should be in the room and when is the best time/place/circumstances to have those discussions.

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE said...

Great comments! I think you both raise important points: how do we make space for ALL of our staff members to have and express their ideas, and then, once we get them going on idea creation, how to we focus and manage the results?

Cecilia Sepp said...

I think the hierarchies created in any organization combined with the (what I consider bizarre) attitude of "getting in trouble" are the two major obstacles to idea generation.

Some of the best ideas I've had or heard have been in the informal settings like the kitchen getting coffee or a conversation in a hallway with staff from all over the organization.

Getting these ideas from the informal setting to the "action stage" is the next obstacle.

As noted several times already, anyone can have a good idea. This is why I make it a point to treat everyone like a contributor no matter what their job is.

Too often, people are dismissed because of the labels we place on them rather than approaching them as a fellow human with intelligence and creativity.

Anonymous said...

I was at an ASAE event not too long ago and someone mentioned that they have an "innovation" line item in their budget to deal with ideas that come up along the journey so that those can be activated. I plan to give that a try next year in my own budget because we leave so many great ideas behind simply because we don't have budget to activate them - and in the big picture, they might be really great for us. They might fail, but that's ok, too, as long as we are managing that and deciding a reasonable time at which we should cut our losses. I am always disappointed when one of my staff has an incredible idea that we just have to table and while any "Innovation fund" line item I develop wouldn't be enough to support all ideas, it at least opens the door for us to try to pursue new things throughout the year. Ideas don't just happen a year and a half in advance when we are writing the budget.

One of the pieces I struggle with is how you work in a culture that doesn't support the concept of valuable ideas coming from anywhere. Or, how you work to change such a culture when you aren't at the top. OR how you function in an organization that pays lip service to this concept but in practice, is completely the opposite.

@robertmbarnes said...

The idea budget line works. I have a mysteriously named budget line which I have aside for the 'small safe tests' that need to be used to try our team's new ideas. As a GM knowing you have resources aside to say "yeah, let's give that a go" is very empowering. Almost every time the response is "but how will we pay for it?". After my usual wisecrack about taking it out of their next pay, I tell them there is always money somewhere for a great idea.

The hurdle will come from a GM, VP, Senior Exec who thinks they have a mortgage on good ideas OR (even worse) has created a culture where the staff think the only way to get change happening is to make the GM think it was his idea.

It takes an awful lot of maturity, integrity and self-awareness to present yourself as a leader and decision-maker open to sharing the resources of the organisation with anyone who has new idea that has merit. Add to this a financial resource that supports ingenuity, lateral thinking and just trying it out, and you have a winning combination in my book.

@robertmbarnes said...

Plus, we use a cracking Groupsite.com based Intranet where we specifically have a Discussion thread called "What Would Happen If..." designed to inspire the team to ask questions about what would happen if we...
... started sending invoices with industry advice printed on the bottom?
... took email links off our website and just had the FreeCall number instead to limit the email influx and provide better customer service?
... we stopped publishing a very expensive magazine? Would anyone notice?

We then ensure that a team member who posts a great idea in the eyes of the team gets a chance to present their idea with some supporting evidence to a monthly 'All Hands on Deck' team huddle conducted via Skype + Teleconference. All 23 staff all on together. It is great fun.

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE said...

I love the "idea budget" concept - reminds me very much of Google's 20% time.

I also love the "what would happen if..." internal discussions Rob talks about. December a year ago (I think - maybe two years), ASAE/Acronym promoted a Big Ideas blogging month that got a lot of us looking at these kinds of questions. I wonder what - if anything - happened in our organizations as a result?