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Uncover a Bonanza of Bright Ideas

“Uncover a Bonanza of Bright Ideas”

Create a ‘knowledge organization’ by spurring your team to think.

When Bill McGowan wanted to unleash his employees’ creativity, he didn’t give speeches. He didn’t scold them for playing it safe. He didn’t yell, "How can I get you people to think?" Instead, the late founder of MCI let out a rallying cry: Whatever AT&T does, do the opposite.

This deceptively simple exhortation achieved three goals. It reminded employees that they were the feisty David battling a huge Goliath. It also gave them the freedom to buck conventional wisdom. And most importantly, it taught the troops at all levels to think about their jobs.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, McGowan wanted every brain cell of every employee to operate on overdrive, resisting age-old assumptions about the business and taking nothing for granted.

Unlock hidden brilliance

Workplace knowledge resembles electricity. It’s a current that’s coursing through the halls, offices and factory floor. Though usually invisible and easy to overlook, it’s the juice that nourishes a company’s growth.

Dynamic entrepreneurs have many talents, but tapping the smarts of their employees may not top the list. In fact, your charisma may muzzle others’ creativity. Your quick mind may intimidate others, turning them into awed spectators who defer to your judgment and resist thinking for themselves.

Your challenge is to surround yourself with independent thinkers who apply logic, common sense and imagination to develop ideas, solve problems and challenge traditional "truths" about the business. That means giving them ample opportunities to speak up and take risks in a supportive, nonthreatening environment.

Use these three keys to unlock the brainpower of your workers:

  1. Listen. Show curiosity when others speak. Don’t rush to nod your head or otherwise reveal whether you approve of what you hear. Instead, keep quiet, maintain eye contact and strike a pleasant facial expression so that employees can elucidate on their ideas at their own pace.
  2. Question. You don’t need to waste time listening to dumb ideas, right? Yes and no. Strive to ask at least one clarifying or follow-up question before judging what you hear. The benefits are twofold: You demonstrate to employees that you’re pondering their points seriously, and you might learn something by prodding the individual to provide even more details.
  3. Reward. When employees attempt to think through a problem or grapple with conflicting sets of data, don’t spoon-feed solutions to them. Praise them for trying. Cheer them on. The more you salute them for flexing their mental muscle, the more you encourage them to think even harder.

Follow the 4 C’s

To infuse learning throughout their companies, some entrepreneurs distribute stacks of reading material, market analyses and financial information to employees. That’s a nice start. But handing out lots of articles and raw data probably won’t make your troops substantially brighter.

Information alone isn’t worth much unless people absorb and apply it. Unlike data, which can be stored on a computer hard drive or transcribed on paper, knowledge gets acted upon. It’s entirely different and more valuable than dry facts or statistics.

Here are four activities to transform information into knowledge:

  1. Comparison. Rather than relay reams of information to your work force, compare it to other information. Take two scenarios and show how managers interpret the same data differently based on key variables. Pose questions such as "How does this information compare to last year’s results?" or "What explains the difference between these numbers and last week’s numbers?"
  2. Consequences. One of the best questions you can ask to stimulate thought is, "What do you conclude from that?" Help employees evaluate the implications of information, from the way it influences decisions to the assumptions it either affirms or denies.
  3. Connections. Employees who see the relationships between various sets of information become smarter, more critical thinkers. Make it easy for people to forge connections by asking: "How does this relate to what you learned before?" or "Does this remind you of anything else?"
  4. Conversation. If your employees want to learn, then your job’s easy: Just let them exchange ideas and test hypotheses. The best brainstorming sessions occur when participants operate in a judgment-free zone without the fear of looking dumb.

Feed the need for passion

Fast-growth companies are rarely dull. Employees usually rush around excitedly, slapping high-fives when they win a new account or negotiate a favorable contract.

Passion breeds knowledge that can drive your company forward. If workers care about their jobs, they’ll think more deeply about their projects. They will assess what they know and don’t know, and take steps to acquire more skills, abilities and insights. When faced with roadblocks, they will rigorously gather facts and search for solutions, rather than seek the easy way out.

You can facilitate this process by encouraging employees to step back from workday pressures and exchange ideas in a more reflective, less harried frame of mind. Help them overcome what historian David McCullough calls "tempo shock," where people rush to keep up in an ever-accelerating workplace. Allow them to absorb knowledge at a more relaxed pace.

In many fast-growth companies, bright people race to meet deadlines and never enjoy time to talk, much less think, in a calm, analytical manner. Their initial passion erodes as they’re isolated from co-workers. They become so task-driven that they fail to heed the lessons they’d otherwise learn.

To enable employees to marshal their passion into knowledge-generating energy, let them mingle freely and informally. Suggest that employees who share common interests meet, perhaps at weekly brown-bag lunch roundtables or Friday morning coffee klatches.

Model these loose-knit networks on extracurricular clubs on college campuses or local computer-user groups. Examples:

  • Employees who love to read business books can form a discussion group to review recent releases and discuss how the book applies to your company.
  • Nervous public speakers can meet to practice their presentations or form a Toastmasters club within your company.
  • Individuals who want to learn a foreign language can practice with others developing the same skill.

Enable your employees to make informal connections, and they’ll learn by osmosis. Self-organizing "knowledge communities" will form as passionate people seek like-minded colleagues. The ideas that emerge from these networks will prove contagious as employees at all levels find outlets to indulge their intellectual energy.

Assemble a ‘panel of experts’

As much as you want your employees to think creatively and apply logic to their everyday tasks, telling them to do so won’t produce results. You need to open doors so they know where to turn to test ideas, ask questions and practice new skills.

Consider what happens when they fend for themselves. A newcomer asks an experienced employee to explain how to complete a purchase order or track expenses. A manager with a computer problem flags down a technician. A salesperson enlists a product specialist who can respond to a customer’s inquiries.

Employees tend to find their own sources of knowledge, whether you facilitate the process or not. But here’s the rub: Employees may not necessarily know who’s most qualified.

Rather than seek out the most experienced, intelligent or insightful colleague, they’ll probably turn to a cubicle mate or friend whom they like and trust. They may lack the means to evaluate whether the knowledge they gather is faulty, outdated or incomplete. They, in turn, might spread their newfound "knowledge" to others, leading to breakdowns or spreading misconceptions about vital aspects of your business.

The solution? Increase the odds that employees go to the best source. Designate in-house mavens who’re willing to share their experience and expertise with others. Here’s how:

  1. Identify experts. Ask about your employees’ hobbies and interests. Investigate if they possess skills or talents that aren’t readily apparent in their jobs (example: a salesperson who speed-reads). Pay special attention to finding the most adept technicians, from the computer whiz who has mastered the software programs your firm uses, to the engineer who doubles as a "fixer" when bottlenecks threaten to clog your assembly line.
  2. Distribute a resource list. Create a directory of experts, and give a copy to each employee. Each entry should include the expert’s name, photo, phone number, e-mail and a brief description of his or her credentials.
  3. Develop a FAQ catalog. Just as Web sites often include a series of frequently asked questions and answers, have your experts isolate the most common questions they’re asked, and then write them down along with clear, concise responses. This way, you can formalize practical knowledge that flows within your company in the form of a loose-leaf manual or an intranet resource.

Tease their brains

Train your team to think by inviting them to solve puzzles. Involve your employees in the real business decisions you face. Discuss key issues, such as strategic planning, marketing campaigns or expense control, and lay out specific goals and challenges in each area.

Begin by presenting the facts and posing a problem in plain English. Examples:

  • What are we missing here?
  • Given the facts, why aren’t our results better?
  • What factors/causes/variables are we ignoring?
  • What questions are we forgetting to ask?

Another exercise is to present a set of facts, and then stop just before you draw a conclusion based on those facts. Ask your employees, "Based on these facts, what do you think is the most logical conclusion?" You thus guide them to process the data, weigh its significance and reach some kind of closure.

Let them debate their conclusions before you chime in. Let them piggyback on each other’s observations. This sharpens their minds and teaches them to think like business owners.

Don’t expect all your employees to turn into geniuses just because you expose them to business problems. Some individuals will tune out or simply choose not to contribute. Don’t push them too hard.

Remember: The purpose of such exercises is to encourage independent thinking. As long as you create a supportive, nonjudgmental environment, you increase the odds that they’ll at least try to stretch their minds. But if you come down hard on those who show little interest or make "dumb" comments, you’ll pummel potential thinkers into meek, submissive order takers.

Use mind mapping as a ‘think’ tool

You learned to take notes in a tidy, sequential manner in school. That’s great if you’re hearing a lecture, but not if you want to sharpen your thinking.

Mind mapping stimulates visual intelligence so that you "see" patterns of information, write them down and uncover knowledge and even wisdom in the process. It galvanizes your creative right brain, not your logical left brain, thus enhancing your creativity.

In its simplest form, mind mapping consists of fast, playful but intense note taking. If you want employees to try it out, identify a business problem (such as "increase sales" or "improve customer service") and have them write it in the center of a blank page of a legal pad. Have them circle the problem. Then instruct them to start writing.

Give them 30 minutes to jot down whatever comes to mind. In addition to words, encourage them to use graphs, charts, diagrams or even cartoons. If you notice them slacking off, prod them to keep writing something, even if they’re just doodling or drawing arrows to connect related thoughts on the page. The process works best when participants’ hands keep moving; too much reflection can lead to self-editing or censoring, which limits free-flowing ideas.

Through this activity, individuals begin to forge interrelationships between ideas. They may connect an idea about answering phone calls more promptly to using headsets to reorganizing their desks so that the phone is easier to reach.

When people brainstorm on paper in an unstructured way, it frees up their minds to break through self-imposed boundaries. In an entrepreneurial business, this exercise is particularly relevant because it infuses everyone with a sense of limitless possibilities.

When it’s over, turn over the floor to the participants. Let them narrate what they’ve written and explain what they were thinking at the time. This can promote collaboration — employees plant seeds of ideas that blossom among the group.

Writer: Morey Stettner is a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H. He is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).