Too many ideas
"“Your job is to help row the boat, not to steer."--Manager to employee
Bombarded with bright ideas
Sharon was new to management. A young employee who reported to her was frequently suggesting ideas for how things could be done better. Many ideas seemed reasonable on the surface, but often were reasons they wouldn't work. Some ideas had been tried before and hadn't worked. Other ideas were hampered by less apparent tradeoffs or were too far from current priorities. Furthermore, Sharon noticed the employee sometimes didn't complete their main tasks, but instead had spent time working on proposals for new ideas.
Sharon didn't want to completely shut down suggestions and the possibility of good ideas coming through but was finding the constant stream of suggestions too much to handle. Many times she was too busy and didn't have the head space to consider the ideas. Sharon didn't know how to address the situation.
The communication gap
The employee was trying to help. However, like most employees, they didn't have access to the bigger picture of business context. They didn't realize that what may seem big to them was often minor in the context of other priorities and that their requests were only one of many dozens of things that managers are juggling and considering every day.
After our coaching session, Sarah had the following conversation with her employee:
I really appreciate your enthusiasm for coming up with ideas for how to improve things. Practically speaking, we are juggling many different priorities and there is limited scope for considering new ideas and taking them forward. Sometimes ideas have tried before and didn't work, so it will take more thinking to understand how to do things differently this time. Other times, there are complicated constraints in the wider business that aren't readily visible to our local team. How about we post some short-term and long-term goals that reflect our current business priorities so that our team understands which problems new ideas should focus on solving. It will be most helpful for new ideas to be focused on solving these priority goals.
Regarding the time spent coming up with new ideas, my responsibility is to ensure that our deliverables as a team gets accomplished. I'll have to request that everyone prioritizes finishing their deliverables first before spending time on ideas for improvements. This could mean that idea generation needs to happen outside of normal working hours.
Because I'm also juggling so many different duties, it'll be best if the ideas can be batched so I can consider them in one session without task switching. How about you keep a record of your ideas and then we set aside time once a month to go over them together?
Sharon felt more comfortable having been able to discuss this with her employee. Having set the initial expectations that it was difficult to have ideas accommodate, she found it easy to give feedback on ideas in their monthly meetings such as, "This isn't enough of a priority for now, we have to wait until we finish X" or "We tried this before and it didn't work because of Y, you'll have to think about how to address those issues before we propose trying it again." It was also now clear to the employee that the priorities were to finish the prescribed work tasks and having had the initial discussion, Sharon felt it would be straightforward to remind them that work tasks needed to be completed first before idea generation, though she has found she hasn't had to so far.
It can be overwhelming, and even annoying, to be frequently receiving ideas that don't account for the tradeoffs of limited resources, wider business constraints, and the need to focus on immediate priorities. However, there are many ways to keep your employees focused and make the most of their enthusiasm. You can achieve this by keeping them focused on finding solutions to your priorities and being clear that completing work tasks needs to take precedence over idea generation.
*Due to the sensitive nature of our case studies, names and details have been changed to be anonymous.