How well do you listen to (un)remarkably good ideas from your employees?

An ‘absurd’ idea from an employee can easily lead to a breakthrough for the organisation. At least, as long as leaders are open to it and won’t get in the way. And that takes a lot of courage…

Let's cut off the legs of the table!

Nowadays, we don’t know better than to assemble our own IKEA furniture at home. But years ago, this was far from ordinary. If a leader at IKEA in the 1950s had not been open to the idea of one of his employees producing furniture that could be transported much more easily, things would probably have turned out very differently for IKEA.

In 1956, Gillis Lundgren, one of IKEA’s first employees, bought an IKEA table and wanted to take it home. Once at the parking lot, he bumped into a problem: the piece of furniture didn’t even come close to fitting in his car. Looking around, he saw that he wasn’t the only one with this problem. That situation led to an insight: the table would fit without the legs.

I can imagine that it went something like this. A super enthusiastic IKEA employee ran to his manager’s desk, saying: “I have a brilliant idea; let’s just cut off the legs from the table!” The majority of managers would probably have thought that this was an absurd idea and would have turned it down. But that manager at IKEA did the opposite. He was able to see beyond the absurdity of the idea, embraced it, and had the guts to go ahead with it. And the rest is history.

I will do it myself

Eric Yuan’s example shows that things can also turn out completely different. In the late 1990s, he was one of the first employees at Webex, a platform for calling, chatting, and video conferencing. Ten years later, it was taken over by Cisco.

Yuan regularly spoke to Webex users and knew there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the product. He felt ashamed and repeatedly pointed out to management that the service needed to be drastically improved. But they didn’t want to listen to him. Yuan became disillusioned and no longer enjoyed his work.

He decided to develop a platform that would be user-friendly himself. And thus, he left the company. More than 40 talented co-workers joined him to embark on the new adventure. This was the start of Zoom, the video conferencing platform that we all know today and that we probably use more often than Webex.

Employees no longer speak up

Often, groundbreaking concepts start with a quirky or even ridiculous suggestion from an employee. Usually, it’s because they run into an issue throughout their everyday job, question why it keeps happening, and are eager to find a solution. However, the majority of their ideas are ignored because they are too unconventional or they are simply misinterpreted.

According to research by Karin Hurt and David Dye, two-thirds of workers remain silent because they think their leadership acts under the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it”. Half of all employees feel that nothing is ever done with their ideas and say that they are never asked to share ideas in the first place.

But one of the most crucial factors is that an idea only becomes a success if the leader can approach it with an open mind and dares to act on it. This requires leaders with a fresh attitude who can let employees feel comfortable and encourage them to share a crazy idea.

This article was originally published in Dutch on CHRO.nl – the platform for HR executives. 

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