Throughout our research we discovered several fantastic methods leaders used to draw out people’s best thinking, new ideas, and customer-focused solutions. We’ve included some of our favorites here. We’re certain that one or more of them will work for you or spark a creative way to bring out the best ideas in your organization.
Nate Brown, co-founder of CX Accelerator, gave every member of his frontline team a “CX magic button” for their desks. The button plugs into the computer via USB. When an employee has an idea on how to improve the customer experience, she physically hits the button and a form opens immediately on her computer where she can easily record her idea or customer feedback. The button serves as a constant reminder to be a Customer Advocate, plus it feels easy and fun. Nate then takes the themes he hears and digs deeper when he’s out talking to the team.
Jon King, vice president of operations at TaskUs, a fast-growing, tech-enabled business services company, created an AskJon email, solely for ideas of innovation and community building—creating a consistent flow of great ideas, including a food pantry for any of their families in need. Jon said, “The amount of trust and respect fostered from this one program has been immense.”
Jill K. Herr, a director of clinical operations in rehabilitation at WellSpan Health, shared this best practice:
We assign one team member to speak for the patient in a pertinent meeting. When it’s a team member’s turn to attend the meeting as a patient, they don’t weigh in from their usual perspective during that time. They focus on thinking and speaking like a patient. If it’s your turn to represent the patient, that’s all you do. Your entire job as we are making decisions that will affect the patients’ experience is to consider “As a patient, what would I want/say?”
We used this most when we were building our electronic documentation system. So, for example, in our acute-care environment, we were working on a scheduling system so departments wouldn’t show up at the same time to see a patient. Rehab would know when the patient was getting a test, in imaging, or being seen by a respiratory therapist. This is important, because in the past, we could show up to provide physical therapy and find an empty room.
During this discussion, the “patient” raised his hand and said, “I want to know my schedule as well. I want to know when my doctor is coming to see me. My family wants to know what time my therapy is so they can be here to be involved.” What resulted is “transparent scheduling”—still a work in process but making a huge impact.
We were facilitating an executive off-site meeting working through standardizing procedures when Josh, the vice president said, “Can I just be real for a minute? How many of your teams have serious workarounds in place to get this done?”
Every executive in the room reluctantly raised their hand. He continued:
How do we know if these are great ideas that everyone should be doing or sloppy practices that will bite us down the road? Some of these workarounds are probably game-changing ideas that would benefit everyone. And I’m sure there are some that we would all cringe if we knew they were going on. We need to get a handle on what’s really happening. What if we had a workaround workout week where every- one can share how they’re really getting the work done? We promise amnesty if they’re not following protocol—no one will get in trouble. That way we can be sure they will tell us the truth. We can find the good ideas and best practices and figure out how to make them work for everyone else, buckle down on the workarounds that will get us into trouble, and explain why they’re not viable solutions.
And so, the concept of the workaround workout was born. A week of amnesty to demonstrate nonstandard approaches can help you find and solve inefficiencies as well as identify and scale improvements created by the people closest to the work.
Molly, a director at a tech giant, creates an opportunity for her team to crowd-source ideas through team mastermind sessions. All team members brings a strategic business challenge they’re wrestling with and pitches it to the group for ideas. They all get an opportunity to share a challenge and explain why it’s hard, what they’ve tried, and where they need some ideas. Once they’ve explained the challenge the other team members ask probing questions and share their best ideas.
We’ve come across several approaches that facilitate employees sharing and collaborating on ideas. In a conversation with Carlos, a director at a large financial services company, he described his company’s online system to crowd-source and vet ideas. Employees share their ideas, microinnovations, or best practices in an online form. The system immediately routes the idea to their supervisor, who does a quick review. If the idea passes basic criteria, the supervisor shares it and opens it up for “likes.” Other employees can then endorse the idea with a thumbs-up, just like on social media platforms—and the most popular solutions rise to the top for further exploration and vetting.
A low-tech solution for smaller teams or where technical crowd-sourcing isn’t available, several of the leaders we talked with had some form of a whiteboard system where employees could write their idea on the wall. Colleagues could contribute additional thoughts as they went about their day.
It’s tempting to think we must have it all figured out before wasting our team’s time when raising new strategic issues or concerns. We’ve also seen leaders struggle to promote people who haven’t fully developed their problem-solving and strategic-thinking skills. But if you’re really working to build people’s leadership capacity and Cultivate Curiosity, it’s also important to sometimes bring your folks in before you (or they) have a clue. Let them see you wrestle in the muck. Get their input too. “We could do this…but there’s that and that to consider…and also the other thing.” One easy way to do this is through “Bring-a-Friend” staff meetings—a technique Karin learned early in her career from one of her favorite bosses, Maureen. Once in a while, invite your direct reports to bring one of their high- potential employees along to your staff meeting. Of course, avoid anything supersensitive but be as transparent as possible.
The goal behind a Curiosity Tour is to build trust and energize your team while learning what happens and how things actually work. A Curiosity Tour is like management by walking around, but with a limited focus. Your only job is to show up with Curiosity. As you observe your people, ask:
First, they make sharing ideas routine. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t take extra effort. It’s expected. Next, there is a system sup- porting the ask. Whether it’s the magic button, the crowd-sourced feedback platform, identifying a team member to play a role, or even a plain whiteboard, there’s infrastructure to support the ask.
Finally, they make speaking up visible. There’s a big difference between a team member playing the role of a patient saying “I want to know my schedule” in a team meeting or that same team member visiting her manager to share the same thought. You can see your neighbor hit that magic button. When you crowd-source feed- back, everyone sees what’s shared. Visibly sharing ideas normalizes the behavior and gives everyone a chance to respond and incorporate the idea.
Even with the best systems in place and leaders committed to asking courageous questions, sometimes it takes more to draw out your team’s best ideas. First, you’ve got to make it safe. Your team has questions of their own: Do you really want to hear what I have to say? Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours? Are you humble enough to hear my feedback? Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?
Then there’s the scar tissue to consider. Chances are that even if you’re the most receptive leader employees have ever worked for, some manager in the past has squashed a great idea or even retaliated against them for speaking up. Often when we hear stories that start with “the last time I shared an idea I got in trouble,” that last time was from the distant past. If you want to free their best ideas from the prison of safety, you need to address these concerns. Ultimately, you want a space where ideas flow freely and speaking up is the norm. But what if you’re not there yet? If you sense that your team is reluctant to share ideas or speak the truth, start by building in as much visible anonymity to the process as possible.
Visible anonymity means everyone knows that everyone else is contributing, but they don’t know who said what. This makes contributing feel normal but without the risk of raising what could be an unpopular idea. Contrast that with this anonymous sharing we discovered in one team: The manager placed a suggestion box in a back room. The only reason to go to that room was to submit a suggestion. To alleviate this problem, the manager also placed a bowl of candy near the suggestion box. Now team members might be going back for candy or to make a suggestion.
This manager is trying hard to make it safe to share ideas, but think about the message this sends. The entire system still screams “sharing ideas is risky—better to have people think you’re eating candy than contributing to the well-being of our team or company.”
A Fear Forage is one way you can use visible anonymity to Cultivate Curiosity and surface anxiety or concerns. One of our favorite Fear Forages came when we were leading an executive off-site meeting with a group of successful senior leaders considering a strategic initiative that would require an exponential increase in collaboration across departments full of people who were geographically dispersed, who seldom worked together, and who had competing objectives. We were working through an Own the UGLY exercise (see First Tracks in chapter 6), but we had a hunch that we weren’t getting to the heart of the issue—the polite conversation was going in circles. We worried that if they didn’t acknowledge and talk about that, their carefully crafted plans wouldn’t stand a chance.
We gave every leader an index card to anonymously write down their hopes and fears about the project. The hopes easily fell into a few categories. They hoped the strategy would lead to increased revenue, improve the customer experience, and improve the brand. They were united in the vision of why this was important. The most interesting outcome was the universal fear. Every person in the room feared the same thing: could the others in the room be counted on to execute this strategy well? But no one had raised the issue. We started reading the similar fears aloud. Two-thirds of the way through, everyone got the point. Yikes. If the members of the senior team were this worried about one another’s ability to execute, how would they convince their teams to take those risks? Be- fore they did anything else, they needed to get real and talk about their perceptions and concerns. This Fear Forage exercise is a fast and simple way to get the unspoken fears and concerns into the room.
Here are a few more ways you can use visible anonymity to move through safe silence:
You don’t want to rely on these techniques forever, but when you have a fearful team you can prime the pump as you’re building trust and establishing the groundwork for how the team will work together. The tools in the next chapter will help you take what you learn in these activities and respond in ways that help your people transition from fear to a Courageous Culture.
Time required: About an hour
In the last chapter, you worked with your team to cultivate your vision and identified a few specific behaviors you each were going to practice consistently as your starting point to building a Courageous Culture. Before you jump into the next First Tracks exercise, be sure to check in to ask about how those behaviors are working and the impact people have seen.
Assemble your direct report team and answer the following questions together:
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a fun, creative, or effective way to Cultivate Curiosity in your organization. You can reach us at info@LetsGrowLeaders.com
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