If you ask for ideas, make sure you feed back

Have you ever taken part in an idea-generation session, and heard nothing more about it? I would guess that applies to many of you. It’s a good way of turning people off, and generating a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.

Generating ideas

There are great ideas lurking in many peoples’ heads that just need an audience. Some people are good at talking – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the best ideas. If you have an idea session, the extroverts will be clambering over each other to get their thoughts aired, whilst the introverts will be sitting at the back having a good think. It’s generally a good idea to let people know in advance if you want ideas.

There are a few situations that I think of in relation to idea generation. One is within the context of a project. Maybe you’re working on a design for a new interface, and want some critique of what you’ve done so far. An approach here is to stick up the designs on the walls, and leave pens and sticky notes around so that people can leave their thoughts. If you also post up a change log with revised designs, then those contributors can see what, if anything, became of their ideas. It provides them with reinforcement to want to contribute some more. It’s a good idea as well to list those ideas that won’t be implemented. It helps people to know that although their idea won’t be adopted, that it has nevertheless been thought about. It also helps them to understand more about the context of use, so that their subsequent suggestions can be more relevant.

Another idea-gathering context occurs when an organisation has time out, such as an away day or business unit forum. Maybe there are some business presentations, and then, to get more ‘engagement’, everyone is invited to come up with good ideas either singly or in groups, and then to present these back. There might be some voting for the best ideas, or management will gather them up for consideration.

I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of value from these efforts. It does get people talking and thinking about things which is good, but generally the follow up has been lacking. Companies don’t typically have a lot of spare resource, in time or money or people, and so if new ideas are presented, then something else has to stop in order for them to be implemented. Some companies may be better than others at this, but it takes effort to review, compare, persuade, change course. And so the initial enthusiasm gets lost in the daily grind. For it to stand a better chance, one or more individuals should have responsibility for getting the ideas properly assessed – and it should be in their objectives. Those individuals could be at different levels in the organisation – they don’t have to be senior, and it can be a good development opportunity. If they are junior though, they should have a senior sponsor who takes the role seriously.

This lack of feedback and visible impact causes demotivation and cynicism over time. When I started at British Airways as a young developer, I enthusiastically joined in a Process Improvement Plan workshop. I remember well one of the old hands shrugging his shoulders, saying he’d seen it before, nothing ever happened, but at least he’d join in and help. I thought it was a poor attitude. Years later I found myself in the role of the old hand offering similar views, the result of having been through the mill many times.

Yet positive things can happen. When I was UX Manager at BA, a colleague and I went to the contact centres in the UK and the USA to get feedback. We wanted to know what the agents thought of ba.com. We wanted to know what we could improve so that customers wouldn’t be phoning them up with complaints or problems that the agents didn’t even know existed. The contact centre management set us up with different groups, and we sat round a table to talk about what the issues were. We had assumed that there would be some common themes, but were surprised at how diverse the problems were – different by geography and also the role of the agent. The one thing that was common across the groups was the sense of cynicism, that they’d all been through this process before, and nothing ever happened.

My colleague and I documented all of the issues – not just some – on a spreadsheet. We took it back to base, and sat down with the rest of the management team, and agreed who would be responsible for fixing which issues. We also agreed that for various reasons, some were unlikely to be fixed, and we recorded it all in the spreadsheet. As we made progress with fixes, we periodically shared the spreadsheet, warts and all, with the contact centre staff. The response was incredible. People were so happy that we’d actually really listened to them, that we were actually doing something about it, and that we were letting them know about it. Even the old hands got enthusiastic.

This isn’t rocket science.

  • If you want ideas, let people know in advance
  • Provide a forum or method that lets everyone have their say, not just the loudmouths
  • Ensure someone has responsibility for gathering and feeding back
  • Immediately feed back on what the ideas were (and make sure you don’t place your own interpretation on someone else’s idea)
  • Feed back on progress to appropriate timescales
  • If you’re not going to do anything with the ideas, don’t ask in the first place

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