Encourage and embrace process improvement suggestions

You can't immediately dismiss your team's suggestions if you want to encourage feedback about project improvement. Give your team's improvement ideas their due with these easy tips.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Bob is the functional manager of a finance development organization, and he is overseeing a number of projects in the finance area. The call I got from him a couple of days ago is worth recounting.

Bob started off by telling me that he was encouraging new ideas on how to make finance projects more efficient and effective. “I am disappointed in how this has turned out,” Bob said. “I hear grumbling about how projects are staffed, managed, and executed. But no one has any ideas for improvement.”

“Gathering feedback from the troops is a neat idea,” I said. “How did you communicate with everyone?”

“I made it a point of going to all of the project status meetings,” Bob said. “I discussed the need to do things better, faster, and cheaper. Those sessions seemed to go pretty well. I even received a few suggestions immediately.”

“Great!” I said. “Is this a long-term initiative, or are you just trying to build focus for the short-term?”

“My initial thought was to put a short-term focus on this,” he said. “However, I thought that if people had some success with submitting ideas, this might be a behavior that they would use over the long term. However, in spite of all my encouragement, there haven’t been many suggestions—even in the short term.”

“Well, you said that you received some ideas when you first discussed this with the project teams,” I said. “Were any of them worth considering?”

“Not really,” Bob said. “I heard the tired old idea about flex time, but I told them no way. People asked about working from home for a day or two each week, but I don’t even want to go there. Someone suggested that we shorten the Project Definition template, but I told him he just needs to get used to this format.“

“Oh yeah,” Bob continued. “Two people suggested that we allow the project teams to have a team lunch once a month. However, with project budgets as tight as they are, my manager would never go for that. I encouraged people to come up with more ideas, but no one has sent anything in for the past week.”

“I’ve got an idea of what part of the problem might be,” I said to Bob. “You keep saying you’re encouraging suggestions and ideas, but are you really?”

Mentor advice
Managers should encourage people to submit process improvement ideas. There is no question that every process, including the project management process, is a candidate for further efficiency. Bob said a number of times that he was encouraging his people to submit ideas. However, you heard how he responded to the four ideas. He’s doing a classic doublespeak. He says he is encouraging suggestions, but his actions show that he is discouraging them.

How would you feel if you were one of the people listening to Bob? Your first thought might be that it is just the management program of the week. However, on second thought, you might decide to give this the benefit of the doubt. So you come up with an idea that would be appealing to you, and could result in increased efficiencies. Let’s say you suggested teleworking once or twice a week. You heard Bob’s response of “don’t even go there.”

How would you feel after that exchange? No words of thanks for the suggestion. No offer to consider it offline. No effort to see if it might make sense on a limited basis. Only a quick “no.” My guess is that you would be reluctant to offer another suggestion. People on the team who heard the exchange probably were unmotivated by it as well.

There are ways to encourage people to submit ideas. These include:
  • Always thank a person for his idea. Even if you don’t think it’s a good one, you can still recognize that the person made an effort to contribute.
  • Don’t say no right away. Think about the implication of the idea, and whether a variation on the idea would work.
  • Be careful about assuming what other people will say about an idea. In Bob’s case, he should take the idea of team building lunches to his manager. The answer might still be no, but Bob doesn’t know that for sure.
  • Just because an idea did not work before, that doesn’t mean it may not work now. Things change. Maybe now is a great time to move forward on telecommuting or flex time.
  • Be open minded and creative. This is the most important point. Don’t just think of why an idea won’t work. Instead, think of what it would take to make it work. You will be surprised how many good ideas there are, if you are willing to think outside the box.

All that being said, many ideas still are not practical. However, if people submit an idea and they know that it was taken seriously and have a sound reason why it was not accepted, they are likely to try again. If they think their idea was not considered, they will not submit more.

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