By Stephen Manley, Coaching Practice Lead, Spitfire

I was recently contacted by an executive to help re-launch a company employee suggestion scheme.

“Everyone knows we need to improve to stay in business and we have so many people who I believe have great ideas – but we’re just not hearing them,” he said. “They must feel so frustrated that we’re not listening. We need a way to get these so that we can act upon them.”

The word ‘we’ in the last part of his statement stood out to me as we chatted. It sounded like he had a system in mind. He confirmed this, telling me that employees had been invited to drop ideas into a suggestion box. While employees were initially enthusiastic, the volume of ideas submitted had dwindled over time. People had lost faith in the box.

To help the new scheme succeed, I shared some key insights that I’d learned over the years.

1. Get rid of the box

One of the motives often given for using a box is to keep things anonymous. Provisions should be made for private discussions of course, but transparency and face-to-face communication ought to be the norm. The box is therefore a barrier. It’s a means of collection. Once they’re collected, the ideas become inventory and inventory needs managing. At best, the originator of the idea is thinking, “great, what else can I get them to do?” More likely, it’s “I raised an idea and heard nothing back.”
Solution: Replace the box with a line manager to create a culture of engagement.

2. Switch to ‘every idea is a valued idea’ over ‘good v bad idea’

The role of the line manager is critical. If an employee has submitted an idea and didn’t hear back, they aren’t motivated to participate further.
Solution: Stop judging the quality of the idea and instead focus on valuing the behavior of ideas being raised. Introduce a culture of appreciation and employees are more likely to continue to participate in the scheme. Consistent recognition, valuing and appreciation of your people leads to more ideas, better quality ideas and increased ownership of implementing the ideas.

3. Prioritize the metrication of the mechanics over the output of the system

Making people feel valued is critical to making this system work. An ‘appreciation metric’ which effectively encourages leaders to maintain high standards of appreciation drives success. To put it simply, if making people feel valued is so critical to making the suggestions system work, it’s important for leaders to consistently show appreciation.

4. Don’t start throwing over fences!

Comments such as “I submitted an idea but nothing has happened with it” really demonstrate what an employee’s expectation of the system is. In this case, the expectation is that when an idea is submitted, something is done about it. Again, some suggestions may require the input of external stakeholders, but if the majority of suggestions are of this nature, then you have a situation where the majority of people are looking elsewhere (over the fence) for improvement opportunities outside of their direct control.

Solution: If you create a system which encourages people to primarily focus on their own spheres of control and encourages local changes and improvements, change happens through them, not to them. People begin to make changes in their own environments, bringing with them the knowledge of what the work is, who’s involved and which relationships can be used to effectively bring people along with the proposed change.

This creates the opportunity for generating pride where the originator can see a feasible idea over the line and increases the belief that the system actually works.

5. Periodically refresh the system

One key piece of learning a client shared was that no matter how well they maintained appreciation levels between line managers and their team members, it sometimes still wasn’t enough to maintain the suggestion system over a longer period of time. There was almost a sense of ‘interest fatigue’ that developed. To counteract this, they asked their employees if they had any suggestions.

They developed a game board concept where individuals advanced on the board based on the number of ideas they suggested and were successfully implemented.

Solution: Appeal to your audience: people who drive change, like change.

Traditional suggestion boxes are disappearing in favor of online versions. To be successful, make sure that your new web-based scheme does not function like a very expensive box with padlock. As we have seen above, the best suggestions come from “out of the box.”

Stephen Manley is the Coaching Practice Lead for Spitfire, a consulting firm with a global reach across Europe, North America, Middle East & Africa. Stephen works with individuals, teams and organizations worldwide to achieve transformational change in thinking, behaviors and ultimately results. For further information, you can reach either Stephen by email (stephenmanley@spitfireconsultancy.com) or Robert Wasson, Customer Development Director in the Spitfire Pittsburgh office (robertwasson@spitfireconsultancy.com).