As a small- or medium-sized business (SMB), you’re facing plenty of issues this year. The threat of economic adjustments, tricky supply chain management, high employee turnover, and changing customer pain points are adding pressure to your business — just to name a few.
These aren’t minor problems, and as a leader, you have a lot of challenges on your plate. The good news is that you don’t have to find all the answers by yourself. In fact, you can tap into your team’s expertise to develop better, faster solutions for a changing world.
Why businesses need to engage employees to solve pain points
Leaders are experienced at solving problems, but you don’t know everything. If you’re trying to solve big problems in your business, it’s best to engage employees for these reasons:
Solve problems before they become catastrophes: Your employees may have their ears closer to the ground than you do. For example, they might tip you off on a morale issue you didn’t know about. From there, it’s easier for leaders to take action and fix issues instead of being surprised by them.
Remove your blinders: As a leader, you’re wearing blinders that prevent you from seeing all the challenges in your business. Employees may be hesitant to share problems or even ideas with their leaders because they don’t want to rock the boat. To run the best business possible, you need to make sure you’re seeing the whole field. Make sure you are encouraging employee feedback that can feed team decisions.
Increase employee engagement: Asking your team to solve big problems — and implementing their solutions — makes employees feel more engaged at work. That results in a deeper commitment to your mission, higher engagement, better work quality, and employee retention. Plus, you’ll get better ideas for your business’s problems.
How to solve big problems as a team
Two heads are better than one, especially in today’s tricky business environment. But how can you create a feedback culture where employees share their ideas? These seven steps will encourage your team to help you solve your business's most challenging pain points.
1. Let people know what’s at stake
If your business is struggling to manage timelines or supply chain costs, what’s the risk? When your team understands the overall implications of a problem, they can offer solutions that management might not have even considered.
If possible, try to make the problem as relevant to employees as possible. They don’t necessarily care about shareholder performance, for example, but they definitely care about issues that impact their workload and work-life balance.
2. Ask employees for their assessment of your challenges
You might have a specific list of priorities you want to address, but your priorities might not be the same as your team’s. Maybe you’re focused on bigger profits, but HR is more worried about low employee engagement or morale.
Employees are generally closer to the work or the customer than leaders are. While you ultimately get to choose what is most urgent to your business, it doesn’t hurt to ask your employees what they think about your biggest problems. This can give you a helpful outside perspective on the business’s priorities.
3. Talk to each team individually first
Marketing, sales, accounting, customer service, and IT all have different perspectives on how to solve the most significant issues in your business. There’s definitely value in bringing everyone to the same table, but it’s smart to meet with each department separately first.
Tell each department about the issues you’re facing. Ask how their section, specifically, can contribute to fixing the issues. Since these are multifaceted problems, you can’t fix customer retention just with one team, but you can connect pieces of the puzzle across departments to create a holistic solution.
If you have smaller teams and more time on your hands, consider meeting with everyone one-on-one. Employees are much more likely to be candid if you give them a private space to discuss their ideas. That’s especially true for more introverted or shy employees, who are less likely to share their thoughts in a team setting.
4. Ask open-ended questions
Maybe you already know how you want to fix the problem, and you just want feedback on certain parts of the solution. The key is to make sure that this approach doesn’t create an echo chamber of your own ideas. Instead of leading the conversation, or giving employees simple binary questions to answer, try to ask open-ended questions.
An open-ended question allows them to share feedback you might not have considered otherwise. For instance, you might be considering changing product colors, and they don’t think you need new color options, or they say the product quality is the real issue, not the color.
Open-ended questions allow employees to add information that could revolutionize your solution.
5. Brainstorm as a group
Leaders shouldn’t make complex decisions alone. After meeting with each department, bring your teams together for an all-hands brainstorming session.
The issue is that your employees might not know how to brainstorm collaboratively or feel shy or afraid to share their ideas in a group. The goal is to encourage creativity and support your team — not to push your ideas or limitations on them.
A productive brainstorming session looks like:
Create a friendly space
You want your people to feel comfortable talking, and sometimes that means getting them out of the office and into a different environment. That might look like going out to lunch or trying an offsite meeting at an exciting location, like the zoo or a country club. The key is to inspire honesty and creativity; the space you choose can set that tone.
Document and acknowledge everyone’s ideas
Every brainstorming session needs a designated note-taker. Be sure to share the notes with everyone in real-time using tools like Google Docs. This helps you document and flesh out ideas as you develop them, and it also makes a record of what you discussed. If you ever want to come back to these ideas, everything is available in one neat, organized space.
While you can’t act on every idea, it’s still important to thank employees for sharing their thoughts. Positive responses like, “I hadn’t considered that before,” “That’s very enlightening,” and “Thanks so much for that perspective” in a warm, thoughtful tone can go a long way.
Share your thoughts last
Employees will subconsciously look to their manager for an example of how they should think in a brainstorming meeting. If you share your opinions first, you’ll snuff employees’ more out-of-the-box suggestions.
Allow anonymous feedback
If you’re tackling sticky issues like morale or culture, employees might not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts publicly. Collecting anonymous feedback can help you spot more insidious issues, like poor management or leadership failings, that employees understandably won’t bring up in an all-hands meeting.
Collect survey feedback
If your team is remote or if you want to collect feedback in a less in-your-face way, surveys are a good option. This is ideal for brainstorming ideas as a remote organization or if you want to quickly vote on solutions from a brainstorming meeting.
The key is to keep surveys relatively short so employees are more likely to fill them out. If you’re having a problem with participation, incentivize employees to fill out these brainstorming surveys.
6. Award and recognize good ideas
Building a feedback culture where employees feel free to share their ideas isn't easy. Consider offering more than a pat on the back in exchange for their brilliance, especially for ideas that bring your company more money.
This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, but probably more than a pizza party. Plenty of Boundless’s clients opt for these promotional goodies to reward their employees:
Boundless’s technology also makes it a cinch for HR professionals to set up an employee merchandise portal. Employees can pick the exact prize they want, which makes your branded swag all the more satisfying to high performers.
7. Follow through on employee ideas
Employees put a lot of effort into the ideas they present to you, but if they keep making suggestions you never act on, they’ll eventually learn that their feedback doesn’t matter.
If you can’t follow through on a particular idea everyone loved, explain why. For example, if there are issues with your company’s payment portal, you might realize it’s a vendor issue. But maybe you’re locked into a contract with the vendor and can’t make a change for at least one year.
Your employees deserve to know why you can’t act on their ideas — plus, you can suggest action items that might work despite current limitations. It’s all about transparency and showing employees you take their feedback seriously.
Change Your Culture To Change Your Business Trajectory
As a leader, you have a lot on your plate. While the buck ultimately stops with you, that doesn’t mean you have to make decisions in a vacuum. The best leaders engage with their employees to make better decisions. The team that brainstorms together stays together, after all.