The Life and Death of Workers’ Ideas

While most companies are shamelessly squandering workers’ ideas, a small but growing number are actually listening to employees and getting extraordinary results. Learn the surprising secrets to their success.

Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations
by Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder
Berrett-Koehler Publishers
ISBN: 1576752828
April 2004, $24.95 US

Every day, millions of workers see problems and opportunities their bosses flat-out miss. With little chance to do anything about them, they’re forced to watch helplessly as their companies waste time and money, disappoint and lose customers, and perform far below their potential. Meanwhile, their managers, chronically short on time and resources, are fighting fires instead of producing results.

Over the last century, many managers have attempted to tap the tremendous potential of workers’ ideas. Yet most of them used the suggestion box, a poorly conceived process that doomed their efforts from the get-go.

Some years ago, however, we started coming across a small but growing number of companies that were getting extraordinary numbers of ideas from workers—in some cases, more than two ideas per person per week. The ideas led to unusually high levels of performance and a strong, healthy work environment that retained and engaged employees.

We decided to study these companies to learn what they do compared to organizations that are less successful at managing ideas, and to find out exactly what works, what doesn’t, and why. Ultimately, we traveled to more than 150 organizations in 17 countries, interviewing some 1,000 managers and workers.

We learned there’s a lot more to getting significant numbers of ideas from workers than putting up suggestion boxes. Much of what must be done is surprisingly counterintuitive, starting with three essential secrets to success:

Secret No. 1: Go after small ideas, not big ones.

Everyone loves big, dramatic ideas. In fact, the bigger and sexier the ideas, the more people are drawn to them. So it’s not surprising that when managers think about promoting workers’ ideas, they envision going after the home runs—the super-sized breakthroughs that promise fame and fortune. Yet it’s actually smarter to go after small ideas, as they’re where the real action is. Here’s why:

  • Small ideas build competitive advantage. They don’t migrate to competitors—and even if they do, they’re often too specific to be useful.
  • Small ideas create excellence by promoting exceptional attention to detail. They enable companies to meticulously mind the details—the absolute requisite for true excellence.
  • Small ideas have vast potential. They are often useful throughout an organization, vastly multiplying their impact.
  • Small ideas are the best source of big ideas. They can be clues to bigger ideas and, when used as stepping stones, often unmask larger problems and opportunities.
  • Small ideas point to deeper issues. They often appear in patterns and in turn can pinpoint weightier problems and opportunities.
  • Small ideas promote organizational learning. They lock in the learning that occurs every day in companies and, by revealing gaps in know-how or skills, help identify important training and development needs.
  • Small ideas can be managed and measured. They come up on a regular basis—unlike big ideas, which come along rarely and unpredictably—giving managers plenty of experience in managing and measuring them.
  • Small ideas have a big, cumulative impact. They may not be earth shattering one by one, but collectively they amass into a big, competitive advantage.

Secret No. 2: Avoid the pitfalls of rewards.

Plain and simple, rewards are unnecessary. Workers will offer plenty of ideas without them. For them, the most powerful incentive is the knowledge that their ideas will get a fair hearing and, if they’re worthwhile, that they’ll be used and recognized.

While the world’s best idea systems offer no rewards for individual ideas, the instinct of most managers is to offer monetary rewards for them. The most common scheme—offering a percentage of the value of an idea—backfires in all sorts of ways. Here’s why:

  • Rewards are inherently unfair. Because it’s the easiest thing to do, most rewards are given to the originator of an idea. But what about everyone else who was involved in evaluating and implementing the idea? It’s no wonder that companies that use rewards often experience a huge backlog of unimplemented ideas. After all, why should workers devote time and energy to an idea when someone else will get the reward? And is it any surprise that people hold back their ideas in team-based projects, knowing they can be rewarded by offering them later through the idea system?
  • Rewards create more overhead and fewer ideas. If a sizable reward for an idea is at stake, the idea’s value must be calculated as precisely as possible. Evaluating the benefits of an idea can and does takes countless hours of staff time and energy. And since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the effect of most ideas, the idea process—along with the people who administer the process—inevitably gravitate toward rewarding only the small fraction of ideas that are readily quantifiable. Workers figure the scheme out quickly and limit their ideas to the kinds that get rewards.
  • Rewards lead to scandalous behavior. Monetary rewards for individual ideas—especially ones with big payouts—often lead to dishonesty and fraud, as managers and workers alike “game” the system. As the saying goes, “If money can be made by doing something wrong, someone will.”

Secret No. 3: Make ideas part of everyone’s job.

Most companies behave as if workers should check their brains at the door. Best-practice companies, however, make giving ideas part of every employee’s job and getting ideas part of every manager’s job. Additionally, many of them track and assess results in individual performance evaluations.

An essential part to making ideas part of everyone’s job is a simple, efficient process for attracting, evaluating, and implementing ideas.

At one best-practice company, managers and employees are expected to bring two ideas—however small—to their weekly department meetings. Each person presents his ideas, which the group then discusses, refines, and builds upon. If the group agrees that an idea should be implemented, or that it requires further consideration, they determine who’s accountable to make it happen. Most meetings involve 8 to 10 people and last about 45 minutes. Each group takes care of ongoing department business, plus processes some 20 ideas.

This deceptively simple process has all the attributes of an effective system. Here’s why:

  • Ideas are part of everyone’s job.
  • It’s easy to submit ideas.
  • Ideas are discussed and evaluated by people who have direct knowledge.
  • Feedback is immediate.
  • Decisions are made quickly and at the lowest possible level.
  • Implementation is fast and simple.

2004 Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder. All rights reserved.

Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder are management consultants and educators and co-authors of Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, $24.95). Contact them at

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