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Why your idea at work never made it to the top

March 25, 2009

I hear it all the time. Employers complaining about how hard it is to find good talent and employees complaining about how their bosses gave their suggestions the cold shoulder.

Notice something here?

Its like a tv drama. Wife complains the husband’s too quiet or passive. Husband complains the wife won’t listen. Makes you wonder why they even got together in the first place.

Having sat on both sides of the workplace fence, I can offer some perspectives. First the employer side.

Despite all the cynicism, most employers do want fresh ideas. What they don’t tell you is that they only want ideas that advance THEIR way of doing things. Let me give you an analogy. If they’ve always had omelette for breakfast and you come along and say lets go for noodles, you won’t get far. That’s because they were expecting you to tell them how you’ll make their omelette more interesting, not replace it with something else. You’ll understand why by the time you finish reading this post.

The thing is they never tell you that, thinking that you’ll understand or have somehow developed a superhero ability to read their minds. Its not all that much different between boyfriends and girlfriends izzit, except this time its the boss that you tango with.

Now what about the employee side.

Yes, employees have no shortage of fresh ideas to offer, especially if they’re a transfer or new hire. What they often forget is to calculate the cost associated with implementing their new idea, not just in dollars and cents but also any possible impact on vendor loyalty, partner loyalty, customer loyalty, etc.

So lets say you’ve come up with an idea that will save cost, but it requires some change to the company’s product distribution methods, for example from fixed stock to just-in-time. It sounds so simple yet so brilliant. Why haven’t they thought of it before?

Here’s the actual end-to-end impact of your idea.

  • Forward contracts for logistics may need to be modified too. Sticky if 3rd parties are involved.
  • Everyone that touches the distribution channels need to be retrained. Miscommunication can be expensive.
  • Systems may need to be modified.
  • Some dealers may opt out if these changes make it unviable to carry your product.
  • A stable though inefficient process must go through another cycle of uncertainty. Risky if you’re in the midst of fighting off a competitor.

As you can see, in an established ecosystem, there will be knock-on effects to every change. The question is are they visible to you. So while your idea itself may be fantastic, if any money saved stands to be wiped out by the hidden costs of change or if a “process lag” causes a transient revenue dip, would you still go ahead and implement it, knowing that competitors are just waiting to cash in on every fumble you make.

(Reminds me of the recent Samsung toner cartridge outage in KL when for weeks, all stores in town ran out of Samsung printer cartridges. I bet alternatives like HP and Xerox saw a spike in printer sales over that period as people like me, desperate to print stuff, promptly ditched our Samsungs).

So while every new idea is an opportunity, it is also a risk. Often it is that risk factor that discourages your boss from taking your ideas higher up.

And the reason why employers and employees continue to grumble about each other like old uncles and aunties is because neither side wants to sit down, open up and speak honestly. How to solve that? Ask your old uncle and auntie.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 9:05 am

    …and your old uncle/auntie will tell you, ‘we’ve lived together like this for umpteenth years, why change now? We need the conversation topics. Arguing about these things helps keep us alive.’

    Sometimes ‘new’ ideas come from your boss too and you become the receiving end. We discussed once about some troublesome processes and he suggested we outsource it. After he listened to my reasons (your description of the way 3rd parties are involved) he threw the issues back to me. After I had talked (or balked) him out of more of his suggestions, I became the culprit instead. He said I am never receptive of his ideas. Nothing ever works with me… But suddenly when a new project involving similar product appeared on the horizon, he asked me when will my contract expire? Will I renew?

    Maybe he realized its better to have an idea fall apart internally than externally. You must be a feisty devil’s advocate… hehe. ๐Ÿ™‚ But its interesting that a boss can accept a subordinate’s critique which I understand is quite rare this part of the world.

    About keeping things alive with sparring jabs, love works in mysterious ways?

  2. March 25, 2009 11:46 am

    I used to think that my fresh new ideas were brilliant and my bosses were stupid not to listen to me. But after few years of working in IT (and consulting industry), I finally realized that it takes a lot of efforts in order to implement a new idea. You shouldn’t remove that “feeling” or “experience” the clients have whenever they deal with you. For example, they know you are a web design company……and one fine day, you tell them you have this brand new coffee machine for sales.

    That…doesn’t sound right.

    But to me, ideas are still ideas. As bosses, they should tell the employees what they should be focusing in – banking system, etc. And the employees should use their creativity within that realm…not outside.

    Also, there’s no single idea in this world which is useless. So don’t turn something down straightaway without listening carefully and also consider it thoroughly.

    If you turn down ideas from other people ALL THE TIME, there will not be anymore new ideas in the future. ๐Ÿ™‚

    That sounds about right. The staff suggestion box is empty because ideas are ignored all the time or rather, considered and then binned without any acknowledgement, feedback or word of thanks offered to the suggestor.

    I’ve always seen management’s inability to handle employee feedback as a common disease among local companies, especially those helmed by paternalistic types who are not used to having younger people talk back to them. It can lead to a serious brain drain.

  3. March 26, 2009 10:10 am

    Hmmm.. feisty devilโ€™s advocate, I ain’t. Just can’t take it all with head bowed and say, ‘Yes’ to every crap thrown at me. BTW this boss happens to be an angmo and often quite sacarstic, but human too. We get by. And avoid him when he runs amok with his mouth.

    About love working in mysterious ways, I have my old folks as living examples. They’re in their 80s now and still at it…

    Okay, not devil’s advocate but art critic then. ๐Ÿ™‚ I learned that processes can be more art than science when it involves humans.

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