"Good ideas are a dime a dozen...” My friend and mentor James used to tell me.
“You just have to let them in!” he would end with a flourish and rush off to implement his next good idea.
Over the years, his words have kept me opened to good ideas. I’m always fascinated by where you find, who has them and who’s willing to share them.
But as I do more and more consulting work with small businesses, I've been noticing an interesting pattern to the rise and fall of good ideas in your businesses. I wanted to write about it but I was having difficulty putting the post together in a way that would jolt your understanding of the problem.
Then I had the wonderful idea to begin reading the scores of books I had bought on the Logos Ship. At least to represent my money - I told myself.
I started with a book by Neil Smith called “How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things.” Neil Smith works as a consultant with Fortune 1000 companies and some of his projects can last as long as five years.
Right at the beginning of the book, he states that every company has two things:
- Hidden barriers which prevent great ideas from surfacing; and
- Employees who have great ideas on how to do things differently
He then goes on to list the 8 hidden barriers which prevent great ideas from surfacing in workplaces.
And right there and then I knew I had a format for my post!
Why is exposing these "good ideas" barriers important?
If you're asking this question, I totally understand why.
After all, these barriers are hidden and they are likely to surprise you.
So, here are just 4 great reasons, why knowing that you are blocking good ideas in your workplace matters.
1. It allows you to get out of your own way. No good business person wants to be the source of harm to their own business.
2. You can engage your employees properly. Once you're no longer part of the problem, you can tap into the goldmine of ideas in your business. A good place to start is to ask your employees how to do this.
3. Customer service (internal and external) improves. Yes...if you select and implement ideas sensibly, they will streamline processes and your business will be on a path to continuous improvement.
4. Profits are inevitable. Once you can tick the boxes for 1 - 3 above, improving profits is inevitable.
Why do I want to expose these barriers?
I really want to point out these hidden barriers because I hear you vehemently complain that your staff don't think. However, I know this is not always the case.
The truth is, YOU don't make it comfortable for them to share their thoughts with you.
I also watch you strenuously resist the very idea that this has anything to do with you, however diplomatically I point it out. And it does...most of the time.
Listen, even as you don't even realize that you're blocking ideas yourself, you're equally unknowingly making it easy for one section of your staff to block those of another section.
In all fairness to you though, let me tell you what I believe is the biggest barrier to good ideas showing up in your business.
It is the fact that you don’t even recognize that these barriers exist in the first place!
So, using Neil Smith’s 8 “oh-so-relevant” barriers, I want to show you the surprising barriers that block good ideas from showing up in your businesses.
1. Avoiding controversy
The hallmark of a good leader is to manage conflict and resolve controversial issues quickly. However, this does not happen in many businesses, including small businesses.
In my experience, Small Business Owners (SBOs) avoid controversy because they are insecure, they find it upsetting or they just don’t have the stomach to interrupt the apparently smooth running of their business.
Because of this, many of you see ideas about how to do things differently as controversial for several reasons.
First, you mistrust the idea and believe that its sole purpose is to expose your poor management skills. So, you ignore the idea and begin to feel resentment towards the employee that proposed it.
Then, even when you think it’s a good idea, you know you should implement it but you know this will certainly lead to change.
When you think about this, you tell yourself it might upset some of the other employees - and you're not ready for that!
So the idea remains just that - a good idea.
When this happens enough times, your staff becomes frustrated, confused and they stop trusting you. So, they stop sharing any ideas or suggestion with you.
Meanwhile, you are trying everything you can to get suggestions from them to fix problems - and you don't understand why you're not getting any.
A stalemate, if ever there was one!
2. Poor use of time
Oh! If only I could get my clients to work more ON their businesses instead of IN the business...(sigh...BIG sigh).
Yes, I know you started the business. I know you’re passionate about it. And yes, at the end of the day, all roads lead to you.
But the success of the business often requires you to delegate those things that can be dealt with by your team.
When you do, you make time to work on important things, like reviewing and implementing good ideas.
Good ideas solve problems. But when poor time management and bad prioritizing prevent you from recognizing them and using them to solve your problems, the whole business suffers.
Above all, when your employees realise that you never “have any time” to work on their good ideas, they too, won’t make the time to suggest any.
3. Reluctance to change
I hear it all the time. People are afraid to change. What I observe however, is that people are really afraid of the loss or the pain associated with change.
In a small business, the hardest and most unwilling area to change is the culture. This is true, even when the owners seek and pay for professional help.
Why is this?
Culture is a combination of several factors, often driven by you the owner.
Culture is the way you do things. It's what you support, what you tolerate, how impartial you are. It's how you treat your staff, the way you treat your customers...
You culture is how do business!
When your culture is strongly supported by your position that this business is your blood, sweat and tears, you guard it jealously. Even from good ideas.
That's because, instinctively, you regard any ideas which require meaningful change as a threat to "the way we do things around here."
Furthermore, in these circumstances, it is common to find instances in which the only ideas that you readily accept and do anything about, are the ones which you come up with.
Once your employees realise this, they are going to be very reluctant to share any ideas or suggestions. Not when they expect you to write them off before you even give them a try.
In the final analysis, if you are not ready to make big changes in the way you do things, nothing changes.
4. Organisational/business silos
The Silo Mentality as defined by the Business Dictionary is a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company.
In the case of small businesses, the problem is usually as much to do with the structure of the business as well as the owner’s behaviour.
As an example, let’s look at a business with more than one branch or location.
The longer it took before the second outlet was set up, the more the people at the first location behave like demi-gods when the second outlet comes along. This is how a silo is created.
Silos are born when the business has many poor systems, non-aligned “silo” priorities, insufficient support staff and poor leadership.
So, in my example, you find that the needs of the “headquarters” are met first. They "forget" to share important information with those at the new location and other things fall through cracks.
You will also have poor communication at all levels and in every silo. The decision-making process will be quite ineffective and an incredible amount of blame will be flying around.
On the other hand, ideas from the new branch are not considered or even respected and they (the employees) are marginalized.
At the same time, the new branch is faced with baseless and unreasonable performance expectations...can you believe that?
Now everyone in every silo is frustrated. And when you attempt to confront and control the situation, somehow it becomes even worse.
So, the business stagnates and everyone suffers...not a desirable situation for any business of any size.
5. Management Blockers (Blocking)
In another life, I worked for an organisation where the leadership was elected rather than appointed.
When leaders get their position by popularity rather than ability, they forever feel threatened. This means that they often act in their own self-interest instead of the interest of the organisation or the members.
I watched with alarm, as many good ideas were rejected or undermined (many of them were mine) just because the employee did not play the suck-up-to-me or ass-kissing games.
Unfortunately, many SBOs behave just like this.
Yes, you have a large capacity for risk and this led you to start the business. BUT it does not mean that you’re the right person to run that business.
Some of you seem to know this instinctively and hire talented people, get out of their way and let them work, as well as work their magic, for you.
On the other hand, too many of you take the position that this is my business! I know what’s best for it and if you’re not with me, you’re against me.
In a toxic workplace like this, it’s extremely difficult for you to get the great and innovative ideas you need to take your business forward.
You see, when you are short-sighted and self-protecting, you will perceive many ideas for change as a challenge to your leadership or intended to undermine your authority.
So, driven by your poor leadership and equally poor vision, you will block them...without evening knowing this is what you’re doing.
When your employees realise this, one more time, they will be reluctant to offer any ideas to fix anything.
They will just do what you want, right or wrong, and collect their pay.
This creates a further problem. Because you are unlikely and unwilling to admit that you are at fault, your turnover rate is high, with the very people you need to keep, being the first to leave.
The frustration thing for me is that every employee does not leave on their own. You fire some of them!
6. Incorrect Information and bad assumptions
This is usually an easy barrier to spot.
But for a small business, this shows up somewhat differently from the norm.
First of all, the information is more likely to be inadequate or insufficient than incorrect. Whenever this is the case, it is inevitable that bad assumptions will be made.
The problem is that many of you small business owners, strenuously resist the reality that to grow your business you have to grow yourself.
I have lost count of the number of times I have emphasized this to clients.
As information goes, at a minimum, you have to understand the decisions you need to be making, the information you need to make these decisions and the form that information should take.
But what really happens?
You get some information, you don’t quite understand it, so, you ignore it and make the decision from your gut.
If you refer to #5 above, if you’re insecure about your leadership, the bad assumptions are not only about business but also about the intentions of the person(s) providing the information. Sad.
With this level of mistrust, even when you get good ideas, you are inclined to leave them on the table.
7. Size matters
This is a barrier that impacts both you and your employees by the very fact of its existence.
Size matters – the size of the business, the size of your budget, the size of you team and of course the size of your leadership capacity.
The reason it is a barrier, is that because of your size, with your limited resources (time, people and money), you have to be highly selective about which ideas you can implement.
Again, because of the small size of the business, you are afraid that some employees might feel slighted by your decision.
Or, you believe that the way you allocate resources might offend some other employees.
So, you procrastinate about taking action.
You claim that you don't have time (barrier #2) but in reality, you're acting out barrier #1 - avoiding controversy.
This leaves your staff demotivated, frustrated and pretty convinced that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing!
Against this background, even if you were paying $5,000 for a single idea, not one would be forthcoming.
8. Existing processes
“This is the way we do things around here. This is the way we’ve always done things!”
This was the mantra of one of my first clients when I had just started this business, ITDS. He used this to resist almost everything he did not like - even my suggestion for a more friendly way to answer the phone.
Do you wonder that even as I needed the money I had to wish him the best of luck and move on?
Look, every business has existing ways of doing things. They were developed over time and they may have served the business well.
But as the business grows and changes, these processes sometimes become ineffective and SHOULD be changed.
The problem is, the need for change is sometimes noticed by new employees, especially at the management level, who brings fresh eyes to the business.
Fresh eyes will quickly notice your blind spots and if those eyes belong to an employee worth the money you're paying them, they will point them out.
Then, what happens next?
You resent this "new comer" waltzing into your business and telling you what to do. After all, this is not how we do business around here!
The existing employees also resent this approach. Talking so much is NOT how we operate around here!
So, the new employee finds himself or herself crushed in the middle of a culture that is completely resistant to change.
Then, what happens next?
The new employee decides that suggesting anything new to help this business is not worth it. S/he retreats into silence, with all the exciting new ideas, that the business really needs, lock in their head.
The surprising aspect of this barrier is that the new employee now becomes a demotivated conformist and the restraining culture is further reinforced.
How to breakdown the barriers to good ideas?
So...now you have been introduced to the barriers that can exist to block good ideas, what can you do about this serious problem?
Fixing this problem is simple but not easy.
- You, the owner, would need to get meaningful small business coaching to upscale your leadership skills.
2. Your staff will need training in interpersonal skills and diversity.
While you wait to carryout 1 & 2 above, plan a session around these 8 barriers with your employees. Try really hard to have an open mind and attitude so that there is value in the session.
In particular, try to identify which barriers exist in your business. Ask for ideas to address these.
The question is...will you be willing to implement any of them...as soon as possible?