All businesses have challenges. But not all businesses have a strategy for turning challenges into profitable solutions.
From customer relations to communications to keep up with market changes and technology, underlying problems may be more apparent to employees than to managers and leaders. Employees who complain about business problems are usually dedicated to the job, but may not know how to express their concerns clearly or offer solutions using an effective business approach.
Why should that matter when it’s leadership’s job to make decisions and implement business initiatives? It matters because whether they are behind the lines or face to face with customers, employees at all levels have an impact on the bottom line. To put it simply, profitability is tied to employee satisfaction. Employees who are encouraged to express their opinions and empowered to champion the change they seek, create “an inside advantage” for their organization.
What You Can Do
- Understand Your Organization’s Business Culture
People at the top of an organization may assume that people at the bottom don’t think the way they do. That is an understandable but costly assumption. Many lower-level employees have exciting ideas about how business should be conducted but are afraid to speak up. Others speak up, but their input doesn’t reach decision makers because effective channels for this type of communication do not exist.
What is your organization’s situation?
Is there a forum or method for conducting employee focus groups? Is a structure in place for allowing employee ownership of change initiatives? Do your employees feel safe offering their concerns and ideas with you, your manager, or a business decision maker?
You can help make change as smooth and profitable as possible by tapping into employees who have the knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm needed to make the changes work and to be role models for less change-hardy employees.
- Encourage Employees to Identify Problems
If employee input is inhibited by your current business culture, you can create a safe environment within your realm of influence. When employees know they can present their concerns to you without repercussions, they will come forward. It’s human nature to want to be heard and to make a difference.
When they are comfortable coming to you, coach them to narrow the focus of their complaint. Employees who are upset may start talking about the problem then expand the topic because they are taking things personally. Help them identify one thing, in fifteen words or less, that they can control or do something about. Also, have them answer the question “What do other people control, and how can I partner with them to find a solution?” Use these questions and initial conversations to help employees develop a laser focus on the specific problem.
- Get to the Cause of the Matter
Often the reason problem-solving fails is that people don’t identify the problem and its cause specifically enough. Help employees identify the root cause of a problem by asking general questions and working toward more exacting questions such as who, what, when, where, why, and how. Also, ask questions you think they know the answers to as a way to confirm their perception and ask how they think other people see the problem. Once they’ve nailed down the cause, ask them to define some of the alternative actions they and the organization can take to address the problem.
The first alternative may be to do nothing as some problems are too costly to resolve. It is literally more cost-effective to live with the problem then pay to fix it. When employees understand why nothing can be done by your organization to change the situation, for example, they are more willing to adjust their expectations and find other ways to channel their efforts. If the best alternative solution is too costly, encourage employees to identify the second best alternative solution and to explore its possibilities and implications.
- Teach Employees How to Develop a Business Case
The key to creating a solution-oriented culture is to encourage employees to identify problems, identify solutions, and then sell their ideas to you and the other decision makers in the organization. Essentially, you want them to develop business cases for the solutions they envision.
The following is a proven framework for creating a solid business case, as an individual or team effort, that you can share with your employees:
- Introduce the problem objectively–strictly nuts and bolts
- State the cause of the problem
- Explain what the problem costs in terms of profit and customer and/or employee satisfaction
- Offer their solution
- Demonstrate how their solution will make things better, faster, or more cost-effective
- State what the solution will cost and how it will impact the bottom-line
- Provide appropriate details regarding how their solution will be implemented and monitored
- Define what the organization needs to provide in terms of resources and commitment
- Accept ownership of the solution and state how they will partner with others to ensure the cooperation of those who can help
- Present conservative expectations
- Define the process for measuring the success of their solution
Coach your employees to make a formal or informal presentation appropriate to your business culture. PowerPoint or flip-chart presentations are usually satisfactory, but if they’re asking decision makers to invest a lot of money, employees may need to offer significant research and examples of how other organizations have undertaken and reaped the benefits of similar initiatives. For example, if employees want an on-site daycare, they can interview the personnel director of a similar-sized company that has a daycare to gather comparative attendance and retention statistics.
While the business case must be objective, employees should present their case with passion. To win the decision makers’ confidence, employees must be sincere, feel strongly about their solution, and clearly communicate their feelings. It is important to keep in mind that sincerity trumps style in this situation. Many a great idea has never been presented, because of the fear of speaking in public. You are not evaluating how well someone speaks, you are looking for a good idea that will make the business more competitive.
Employees should ask the decision makers for their support and give them a call to action. If a decision can’t be made at that time, employees should get a commitment for a subsequent meeting. If the decision is made to go ahead, then employees should ask for an implementation date.
- Set the Stage and Give Constructive Feedback
Before the meeting, ask the decision makers to pay attention to the details of the presentation, but to focus on the overall plan. Explain the importance of being supportive, even if they disagree with the presenter’s point of view. Make sure they understand that negative criticism may seem threatening to other employees and destroy the culture you’re trying to create.
After the meeting, give the employee or team feedback about the strengths you saw in the ideas that were presented. Make suggestions for improvement, even if you didn’t buy into the plan. If you see gaps in the information they provided or the action steps they recommended, ask them to further develop their ideas and try again.
Solving Problems in the Future
Imagine the impact satisfied employees–who know they have the ability to affect change and the support of their leadership–can have on your organization’s bottom line. By using this process for creating a culture that encourages employees at all levels to champion their vision, you can turn your organization’s business challenges into profitable solutions.
For additional information contact Encore Consulting Group.
Jim Dawson trains professionals in the successful strategies of leadership, communications, and management. You can reach him at or email [email protected].