The island of good ideas

Have you ever been in this situation at work? It occurs when a problem exists that many people, including management, can recognize, but it’s not any one person’s job to fix it. For example, it could be a process that spans a few departments, like on-boarding new employees or customers. How would your firm generate ideas and organize themselves to make things better?

Here are two approaches I see that are notable for both how common and how ineffective they are. There is hope, though, that a new approach is becoming more popular.

The captain of the suggestion box

Perhaps the most common method is that a manager with some authority calls for a meeting about the problem. The boss asks for ideas, and people take turns offering suggestions.

Like the suggestion box, the ideas tend to be individual contributions as people try to demonstrate their own value and intellect. Also, it’s clear that the only person in the room who has the power to do anything with the suggestions is the manager who called the meeting.

Even worse than suggestions in a box, the meeting takes up much more time and very little is written down. After the meeting, there’s no way to build on or connect the ideas, and nothing changes other than attendees growing a bit more cynical.

The stranded crew

A better way, you might think, is that people are empowered to offer suggestions and connect with each other without the need for a boss or a meeting. And in my experience with enterprise social networks, that is both possible and often better.

Leveraging a social network at work makes it easy to surface a broader range of ideas from a much wider audience than any meeting. Since the work is online, it’s also easy to connect people and ideas and to refine proposals.

But, for most problems, the wisdom of crowds is still not enough. Crowds are good at certain tasks (like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar), but they’re not good at making decisions, particularly when resources are still controlled by managers who aren’t part of the crowd.

Of course, open access to information is good. So is easily contributing and building on knowledge, and connecting people and ideas. They’re all necessary but often not sufficient to get new things done.

How good ideas get implemented

The nautical theme of this post was inspired by a line from Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.”

What he meant was that new ideas, like those for solving a process problem at work, typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people, recombined and reconfigured, till the result is an innovation of a kind.

What to do with these good ideas? In his excellent book, Reinventing Organizations. Frederic Laloux describes how evolved organizations increasingly combine the best elements of crowd-based ideation and collaboration (almost all of his examples cite “active internal social networks”) with a new set of communications and decision-making processes.

Laloux describes companies where employees are trained in conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, important skills if the crowd is to avoid becoming a mob. The same companies also implement methods for distributed decision-making and resource allocation, so the crowd is genuinely empowered to act and doesn’t have to wait for a captain to decide.

The next time you see a problem at your firm, think about which approach you use to make work better. How’s it working? What happens to your good ideas?

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images