Creating an Idea Factory

How to encourage employee suggestions without giving up your authority

Soliciting staff ideas and using them to improve your meeting planning and implementation efforts can make you look good to your clients (and boss) and make your employees feel like valued team players. But there is an art to helping staff make meaningful contributions.

Get Rolling
Start by asking staff members to consider how they might alter their jobs to improve productivity, slash expenses and increase attendee satisfaction. These employees have detailed knowledge of the day-to-day challenges and opportunities in the meeting planning process. Their personal experience puts them in the best position to offer effective advice for doing business better.
    Here are ways to encourage the sharing of ideas.
    Make a commitment. Tell people you’re open to their ideas on improving the way the company’s meetings are planned and implemented. Outline a process for accepting, evaluating and acting on ideas at each meeting, and tell your staff how the process is going to work. 
    Then launch the new idea-friendly culture by presenting a thought of your own for your staff to discuss, evaluate, refine, build on and help put into action.
    Listen. Ask employees where they think improvements are most needed, and challenge them to bring at least one idea to every staff meeting. When they do, praise their efforts and work together to evaluate ideas on the spot. Then, arm employees with the tools they will need to bring their ideas to life. At each meeting, emphasize your commitment to employee contributions by providing an update on ideas that have been implemented already and discussing the results.
    Nurture that first idea. Be extra attentive the first time each of your staff members presents a possible change: Your encouragement will set a positive tone for ideas to come and will let people know you’re listening. When concepts come in half-baked, explore their potential as a team. Remember, there’s no such thing as a “bad” idea. Ask, “What other actions does this suggest?” Encourage employees to see small ideas as stepping stones to potentially big breakthroughs.
    Hold idea meetings. Devote an entire meeting to the process of listening to and building on ideas. In addition to asking employees what they perceive to be major obstacles or inefficiencies facing your group, challenge them to bring to the meeting ideas focused on a particular area you’d like to see improved. For instance, you might ask for ways to improve teamwork, attendee responsiveness, service, quality or creativity.
    Little can be big. Small ideas often lead to a competitive advantage because they slip by industry watchers’ radar or are too entwined in your proprietary processes to be useful to other companies. So appreciate each idea an employee brings to you no matter how puny it seems and ask yourself and your team, “Where or how else might this idea be used?”
    Go beyond complaints. It’s often easier for employees to point out problems than to come up with ideas for overcoming them. The next time an employee complains, look for the underlying issue or pattern behind it and urge the employee as well as others in the department to offer specific ideas for overcoming the challenge.
    Hold a true post-mortem. After each event, get together to talk about what went right, what went wrong and how future meetings can be improved. Ideas for creative themes, improved communication and cost-containment are often on employees’ minds and ready to be shared at these times; you simply need to ask.