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Putting Ideas to Work

(June 2002) posted on Mon Jul 01, 2002

Understand the perspectives of all your employees and how their involvement can improve your plans.


By Terry Combs

New ideas, plans for change, and other business initiatives normally come from somewhere high up in the management chain--usually from upper-level managers and business owners. If you are in one of these positions, did you ever wonder why nothing ever came of that great idea you had, the one that struck you out of the blue while you were playing the 16th hole or in the shower? When you presented the idea to employees, were you met with indifference that left you curious about why no one else could see the brilliance or earning potential of this miraculous concept? Maybe their response reflected on the way you presented the idea. Maybe they felt snubbed that they weren't involved in coming up with the idea. Maybe they just didn't see the issue from the same perspective as you. Most likely, it was all these things rolled into one. If you're an owner or senior manager of a screen-printing company, you have a certain amount of entrepreneur in you. It's like having an extra gene that no one else has or understands. When you're infected with this spirit, finding new ways to accomplish tasks and explore new markets, products, and decorating methods is what makes your job worthwhile. I once worked with an owner who would regularly preach to his staff, "Everyone in the company has to think like an entrepreneur!" He actually believed that by encouraging it, people would automatically think that way. In theory, this sounded like a good approach. But in reality, few people have the stomach or desire to be entrepreneurs. The truth is, when most employees hear a new idea, their first reaction will be, "How does this affect me and my job?" When the question is broken down even further, it means, "Does this idea require more work or time from me for the same rate of pay? Does this idea jeopardize my position with the company? What's in it for me?" Note the emphasis on "me." For most employees, "me" comes before the company. And if it didn't, then most of your employees would be entrepreneurs themselves and probably setting up their own businesses. You can still be a successful entrepreneur and run a successful company, even with a staff that measures every new idea and change in terms of personal impact. All successful entrepreneurs and their companies have the same kind of staff. The point is, all those me employees will still bend over backwards for the company if you can show them what's good for the business is good for them. It's simply a matter of presenting your ideas in the right way. Yes, I know, you're the boss. You're not required to sell your ideas to your staff. You pay their salaries. Unfortunately, you were the dictator and czar of your business only until you hired your first employee. From that day forward, you became responsible for building a positive work environment, motivating your staff, and keeping everyone on board with your philosophy and vision. To make your ideas fly in this role as a manager, you have to sell them as beneficial to both the company and those who the company employs. If you sell the idea as a benefit to the company and to you personally, you'll receive resentment rather than support for your idea. Involvement in plan making Involving lower-level employees in idea building and planning is essential if you want to see your vision take shape. To illustrate why, consider the following examples: I once worked for a company that had a very active product-development team, which included the president, sales managers, and representatives from the graphic-design department. The team developed a new program under which multiple product orders from a customer could be combined into a single order, as long as the same graphic was used on each item. This meant that a customer could place a single order that included 12 navy sweatshirts, 24 white T-shirts, 12 placket shirts, 36 youth T's, and even 12 sweatpants or shorts. The job was then priced based on one set of film and one set of screens. The company ordered brochures about the new package deal, notified all sales reps about the program and gave them updated pricing sheets, and calculated profits based on scooping the competition. Everything seemed perfect until the first order was about to hit, which is when the production department was first informed about the program.Terry Combs The production-department representatives immediately pointed out a long list of concerns about the plan. For example, they pointed out that navy sweatshirts and white T-shirts are best produced using entirely different mesh counts and that ink colors for the same graphic are generally altered to get the same printed appearance on different garment colors. The new program also offered almost unlimited placement options for the graphic on different garments (e.g., front left chest, right chest, sleeve, center back, etc.), each demanding its own screen and leading to a screen-placement nightmare on press. They pointed out all the other production realities that made it impossible to apply the same graphic universally to any type of garment, all of which was surprising news to the product-development team. Initially, the production department felt resentment for not being consulted, and the product-development team felt resentment because the production department could only tell them why the method wouldn't work instead of finding a way to make it happen. There was probably the potential for compromise somewhere, but it should have occurred early in the development of the concept. What actually occurred was a lot of mutual resentment and the production of way too many short-run screens that gobbled up profit and production time. My second example deals with a simple off-the-cuff decision made by the president of a company. The successful company, which sold its products via catalog, decided to produce a wholesale version of its catalog. It seemed like a good idea to all involved. At the last minute, however, and without notifying anyone else in the company, the president asked the catalog printer to change the product codes in the wholesale catalog in order to differentiate them from those in the main catalog. When orders began to arrive with these scrambled numbers, and when the numbers began to appear in order entry and inventory reports, there was a huge mess to clean up. One of two things should have happened. First, the company's president should have discussed possible repercussions with others in the company, even though he did not visualize any as he put his sudden inspiration into action. Second, at the very least he should have given everyone a heads-up about his decision. As it happened, substantial additional work was created along with frustration and resentment. Including representatives from various departments when making decisions that might affect them sounds like common sense, but it's easy for a busy manager to overlook. What's even worse, though, is when a manager goes through the motions of involving employees in planning and idea generating, but really doesn't hear or heed any suggestions or concerns that are offered. Such managers are often mystified by the attitudes of workers today--they simply can't understand why employees are so unwilling to get on board with new ideas. Perspective As a manager or owner, you're likely to see issues from a company-wide viewpoint, while your employees are just as likely to view new concepts from the perspective of their own department or workspace. If your great idea is a benefit to sales, but gives the appearance of doubling the workload in production, you're facing a problem of perspective. The sales department will be thrilled, but your production department will view your innovation as occurring at their expense. From the perspective of production employees, it will appear that you view the sales department as valuable and the production department as having little, if any, value. Resentment and roadblocks will appear as if from nowhere. Some changes will unavoidably be more beneficial to one department than another. Your job is to take an honest look at every perspective from which your innovation will be viewed, and then make sure to address as many of the potential concerns as possible when you present your idea. Plans into action Your good ideas can become great ones if employees are involved in the planning process. So keep coming up with those great ideas, and encourage everyone in your company to do the same. Then take a hard look at the repercussions and effects of every idea on a department-by-department or a person-by-person basis. When you have an idea to present, don't present it as an ultimatum. Instead, say something like, "I'm really excited about this idea, and I would like to find a way to make it happen. Now, tell me what I'm missing here and how to make this idea better. Tell me what hurdles we'll have to overcome to accomplish this so that everyone benefits." Presented in this way, your staff will want to get on board and find a way to make it work. After you've finalized and polished the plan, follow through with the plan objectives and keep an open door to feedback from everyone involved with or affected by the plan, no matter what their level of participation. Finally, once you get the program, improvement, or change off the ground, grab a pencil and jot down that next great idea before you forget.


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