There’s a story on my wall which is on my wall as an important reminder.  It goes like this.

A boy was working on a project in the garage. He was trying to lift a big box but couldn’t budge it.
His father passed by and asked, “Are you using all of your strength?”
“Yes,” the boy replied with that tone of voice that usually goes along with rolling the eyes.
“Are you sure?” said the Dad.
“Yes, Dad. I am trying as hard as I can”.
The father responded calmly, “No. You’re not. You haven’t asked me for help.”

Business leaders are often hesitant to ask for help.  They feel like they should have all the answers.   And if they don’t, they often turn to a consultant.  There can be value in that.  There can be even greater value in asking the people who are already right under the same roof.  Those who deal with the nitty gritty of the business every day. 

And that’s why I applaud the town’s “If I were the boss” program, set up to solicit feedback from employees about the best ways for the town to save money.

Town Manager, Roger Stancil said:  “We’re encouraging them and handing out cards and giving them ways to give us their ideas.  It’s generally true that the best ideas are in their heads. We want to encourage them to give us those ideas so we can find a new way to do things. We’re calling that the “If I Were The Boss…” campaign.”

The cards referred to in the quote are simple index cards – blank and ready to be filled up with new ideas.

This is an excellent strategy that any business can put to work for the purpose of saving money, streamlining systems, improving customer service – anything.

A few variations I’ve seen on this approach include gathering the staff around the conference table for a brainstorming session or two or three.   Or even having each person come prepared to present an idea which starts with the phrase, “If I were the boss, I would….”   I like this approach because it requires every person on the team to participate in the process.  A  mixed approach of presentations, brainstorming and privately submitted suggestions is especially effective.

Time after time, I’ve witnessed staff members coming up with far more ideas that the manager could develop on his own.  One time a group I was working with came up with a list of 100 ways to save money!.

An added benefit:   when the group is involved in coming up with the ideas, they are much more committed to implementation.  They may even be excited about it.

Managers may worry that involving staff could open up a can of worms. Or worries. Both possible. Both valid concerns.  But most likely – the staff is already worried. About financial stability of the organization. About job security. And if they are getting no information from the manager, they are most likely making it up in their own minds or in little discussions by the water cooler and in the parking lot.

Wouldn’t it be great if that energy was focused on something that could have a positive impact on the financial health of the organization?

Then again, there’s that can of worms.  And those worms can’t help but be messy.  So here are a few lessons learned from the school of hard knocks and messy worm can management.

1.  Set a specific goal.    A dollar amount by which you would like to increase revenue, reduce expenses, reduce time spent, etc.  This is very important.   A common mistake is setting out to cut “as much as possible” instead of starting with a specific goal.  Why is that a mistake?  Ask someone to reach as high as he can on the wall and mark that spot on the wall.  Now mark a spot about six inches higher and ask him to reach it.
2.   State how decisions will be made.  Asking for group input can sometimes lead to the assumption that the group will make the decision about how to proceed. If that isn’t true, it is important to say that in advance.  Something like:  “I’d like your help generating a list of possible ideas for saving money.  Once we’ve made the list, I’ll review it with the management team to determine which ones will have the biggest impact.  I’ll share the final decision with you in two weeks.”
3.  State parameters.  If there are any musts, like preserving the customer experience or maintaining staff morale, say so.  If there are any products, programs or services that are off limits, say so.  If jobs are protected, say so.  If you aren’t sure,  you might say something like,  ”  In case any of you are feeling nervous, my first choice is to accomplish this goal without cutting jobs. I cannot promise that at this point. But it is my preference. If you have been thinking about quitting and haven’t told me or if you are interested in reducing your hours, please tell me ASAP because it will make this process easier.”
Notice the careful word selection.  Not cutting jobs is a “preference”, not a “promise”.
4.  Come up with a long list of possible ideas.  The more the better.   Tell your team you want as many ideas as possible.  Oops – that goes against tip #1.   I challenge you to come up with a list of 100 ideas like the group I referred to earlier.  Some of the ideas will be wacky.   That’s good.  Actually – that’s great.
5.  Be quiet.  While working with your team to create a long list of ideas, avoid the tendency to interrupt the creative flow with long explanations about the reasons things are the way they are.  Or responses such as  “we can’t do that”, “we’ve tried that before”, or “that would never work”.     Such comments shut down the flow of ideas.  Save them until #7.   
6.  Take action – Avoid the common mistake – I’ve certainly made it – of gathering a long list of great ideas on the flip chart, white board or file folder and letting them sit there.
Decide and implement as many of the ideas as possible – as quickly as possible. Some of them are no brainers. They will save you money. They don’t affect quality or service or value or morale.  What have you got to lose?  Start NOW!
On some of them – you might feel you need additional information.  Use all your strength. Ask someone (not a committee!) to get the information and bring it and his recommendation to you tomorrow at 2:00pm. Not to leave it on your desk. It will get buried there. Instead review it with him then – at 2:00pm. Ask questions. If more info is needed, ask him to get it for you by a certain time.
If you don’t have time to cull through all the ideas right now, ask someone on your staff who knows the business and its finances real well to go through the choices and make recommendations to you.
7.  Decide and communicate.  If any promises were made to the staff – like the one in #2, getting back to them in 2 weeks – fulfill them.   Explain what decisions were made and why.  Otherwise credibility will be lost. As well as support and enthusiasm for the plan. And a huge loss of much needed strength to implement the plan. And you can’t afford that.

If the manager makes it safe. If the manager asks encouraging questions to draw out more information. If the manager doesn’t interrupt creative flow with long explanations about the reasons things are the way they are. Then it’s amazing the ideas and solutions that can come from these efforts.

Things like:

  • realizing duplication of effort that someone had noticed but was afraid to mention
  • or an antiquated system that no one had questioned because it was so ingrained in “the way we do things”
  • discovering a time consuming report system that no one reads or uses
  • finding volunteers willing to reduce hours or benefits
  • holding meetings via telephone or web conference
  • getting rid of the office water cooler
  • gathering office supplies into one central place instead of having multiple “silos” that are being stocked
  • stapling paper from the recycle bin into notepads instead of buying pads of paper for in house use

I look forward to hearing what comes out of the Town’s “If I were boss” campaign.
And would love to hear from you too.
Have you ever done something like this?
And if so, what were the results?
Will you tell me about it in comments section below?  Or send an email to