While working on a recent report about great corporate cultures, we heard from many companies that aggressively promote employee participation. "We are proud of our distinctive Open Door Policy," wrote virtually every applicant to a best workplaces competition, implying that most executives not only lock themselves away in their offices but also pile large pieces of furniture before the entranceways. Many also touted their suggestion boxes, which ranged from "Add your comments" sections on an intranet to the kinds of low-tech repositories in which schoolchildren leave valentine cards for classmates. The general theme: no one here gets slapped down for speaking up.
Which is, of course, all to the good. Cultures that encourage input and ideas get more of both. The contest applications overflowed with examples of suggestions (often from fresh hires, interns, and receptionists) that had saved or earned the businesses millions of dollars. The typical anecdote went something like this: "Loretta, who vacuums the floors, pointed out that the lint from our rugs could be collected and used to make sound-muffling filters for our machinery, which could cut down on damage to employees' eardrums and significantly reduce our health-care costs." None of us is as smart as all of us, as the motivational posters affirm.
In addition to open doors and slotted boxes, contest applicants reported using meetings, committees, and off-sites to solicit ideas. But two or three cited a practice that I believe, if applied widely, could double or triple staff input and significantly improve employee satisfaction into the bargain. These companies guarantee employees a yea or nay on their suggestions within 48 hours. And if the response is yea, then the companies expeditiously put the ideas into action.
Companies, in general, are not efficient about soliciting ideas. They schedule brainstorming sessions or big-think retreats, setting off panics in which employees pound their foreheads and squeeze the sides of their skulls in an effort to produce something—ideally, a lot of somethings—that makes them look smart. Managers often return from these fishing expeditions with hauls more notable for quantity than for quality. The sheer volume of ideas becomes paralyzing. Leaders slog through long lists of suggestions typed into their laptops or captured on the pages of a flipchart, weighing one against the other, trying to recall the context and the arguments for and against. One or two may see the light of day. A few are swiftly buried, their graves sprinkled with salt to prevent them from coming back. The majority get pushed down the road and pushed down the road and pushed down the road until they wear away to nothingness.
Sometimes employees will independently approach a leader with ideas. The leader pronounces them promising and then, amidst the constant demands of running the business, promptly forgets them. Or, unwilling to discourage initiative, she promises to consider them and then shoves them to the back of her mental filing cabinet. Employees, uncomfortable nagging even the most benevolent of bosses, rarely follow up. They grow frustrated. The suggestion box sits empty save for a gum wrapper and a receipt for Handi Wipes from Staples.
Then there's XPlane, a design consultancy in Portland, Oregon. Like many other companies, XPlane solicits employee suggestions through a forum on its intranet. But XPlane guarantees a response within 48 hours. "Action is taken immediately to determine best solutions to inquiries and suggestions," according to the company.
Lauren Dixon, CEO of Dixon-Schwabl, an advertising firm in Victor, New York, describes her company's process this way: "A person comes in my office and says, 'I really want to do this.' I say, 'Let's figure out a business model and see if it makes dollars and cents.' We evaluate it on the spot and agree if there is any other information that needs to be in the mix before we make the decision. Within 48 hours we make the decision whether to move forward or abort the plan."
"Employees will come to you more often with big ideas if they get instant gratification and results," Dixon continues. "Forty-eight hours I think is the appropriate amount of time."
Of course such a policy requires the CEO and members of her executive team to put aside time two or three days a week to consider suggestions. The need for additional information may make a 48-hour turnaround impossible, in which case the employee should be informed and told when to expect a final answer. But 48 hours means 48 hours. Delivering on that promise strengthens employee trust, and expedites the introduction of great new products and processes to your business.
Many types of companies compete for customers by offering time-specific guarantees. They can compete for employees by doing the same.