We once worked with a very seasoned and aggressive CFO who had a reputation for always delivering the numbers on plan and running a tight organization. In spite of this track record of effective outcomes, however, we noticed an interesting aspect to his leadership style: He never heard a good idea that he hadn't already thought of.
It was common in staff meetings for an analyst to propose an approach to solving a problem or streamlining a process. If the idea was good, the CFO would act as though he had already thought of the solution and that it should be obvious to everyone else in the room. Recognition or healthy debates never happened in his presence. He created an environment where every good idea was his and marginal ideas were not worth a discussion. There was no upside for the staff to innovate on the status quo.
This culture created obvious consequences to the business and its people, including attrition and reduced idea flow.
While you're likely not killing creativity and ambition at the elite level of this CFO, there may be ways to create better idea upside for your team. A few of the effective tactics that we have used and observed include:
1. Healthy debate
Look for opportunities to challenge the thinking of your best people in a constructive and meaningful way. Most ideas aren't fully developed from the start, so creating a culture where healthy debates are encouraged can lead to an increase of quality ideas.
2. Let them run with it
If someone on your team is passionate about pursuing an idea for the business, give them the reins. The entrepreneur's common hesitation with this approach is that it could distract from the employee's existing responsibilities or require substantial investment. These risks can be mitigated by challenging the employee to develop a strong financial and business case for diverting valuable time and capital. This is an effective stage gate in determining how much they are willing to fight for their idea and give them more ownership in the outcome.
A simple email highlighting the outstanding efforts or ideas of team members to the entire organization can go a long way. Giving credit can motivate the team to come up with more ideas or do something above and beyond their daily tasks. These emails don't need to be a regular weekly or monthly occurrence (and probably shouldn't). Spontaneous recognition often feels more genuine and doesn't force you to lower standards in an off week or month.
Although it may be humbling to acknowledge that not all good ideas come from your office, creating idea upside can dramatically improve the culture of your business and unlock your team's value.
Share your thoughts on creating an idea-driven culture with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.