How empathy and technology can elevate team performance
One of the most consequential insights from the study of organizational culture happens to have an almost irresistible grounding in basic common sense. When attempting to solve the challenges of today’s businesses, inviting a broad slice of an employee population yields more creative, actionable solutions than restricting the conversation to a small strategy or leadership team.
This recognition, that in order to uncover new business ideas and innovations, organizations must foster listening cultures and a meritocracy of best thinking, is fueling interest in organizational crowdsourcing — a discipline focused on employee connection, collaboration and ideation. Leaders at companies such as Roche, Bank of the West, Merck, Facebook and IBM, along with countless Silicon Valley companies for whom the “hackathon” is a major cultural event, have embraced employee crowdsourcing as a way to unlock organizational knowledge and promote empathy through technology.
The benefits of internal crowdsourcing are clear. First, it ensures that a company’s understanding of key change drivers and potential strategic priorities is grounded in the organization’s everyday reality and not abstract hypotheses developed by a team of strategists. Second, employees inherently believe in and want to own the implementation of ideas that they generate through crowdsourcing. These are ideas borne of the culture for the culture, and are less likely to run aground on the rocks of employee indifference.
What was the norm, concentrating decision-making ownership in a hierarchical structure, is giving way to a new philosophy that reflects broader societal change. With rapid shifts in technology causing the disruption and reinvention of business models, people at every level of an organization fear becoming victims of unrelenting change. Inviting the broader employee population into a conversation about the future embraces a corresponding technology-fueled culture of participation and sharing, and provides a degree of agency and control. Allowing them to shape and influence policy and strategy thereby boosts confidence and optimism.
How can this be achieved through organizational crowdsourcing?
There is no out-of-the-box solution. Each campaign has to organically surface areas of focus for further inquiries, develop a framework and set of questions to guide participation and ignite conversations, and then analyze and communicate results in a way that helps bring solutions to life. But there are some key principles that will maximize the success of any crowdsourcing effort.
Obtaining insightful and actionable answers boils down to asking the questions at just the right altitude. If they’re too high up, too broad and open-ended, the usefulness of the feedback will suffer. If the questions are too broad — “How can we make our workplace better?” — you will likely hear responses like “juice bars” and “massage therapists.” If the questions are too narrow — “What kind of lighting do we need in our conference rooms?” — you limit the opportunity of people to use their creativity. However, the answers are likely to spark a conversation if people are asked, “How can we create spaces that allow us to generate ideas more effectively?” Conversation will flow to discussion of breaking down physical barriers in office design, building social “hubs” and investing in live events that allow employees from disparate geographies to meet in person and solve problems together.
On the technology side, crowdsourcing platforms such as Jive Software and UserVoice, among others, make it easy to bring large numbers of employees together to gather, build upon and prioritize new ideas and innovation efforts, from process simplification and product development to the transformation of customer experiences. Respondents can vote on other people’s suggestions and add comments.
By facilitating targeted conversations across times zones, geographies and corporate functions, crowdsourcing makes possible a new way of listening: of harnessing an organization’s collective wisdom to achieve action by a united and inspired employee population. It’s amazing to see the thoughtfulness, precision and energy unleashed by crowdsourcing efforts. People genuinely want to contribute to their company’s success if you open the doors and let them.
Taking a page from the Silicon Valley hackathon, organizational crowdsourcing campaigns are structured as events of limited duration focused on a specific challenge or business problem.
Although there used to be trepidation about the hackathon model with companies being concerned that the process would be too hard to control, now there’s a recognition that part of the beauty of it lies in not controlling people when they’re ideating.
That said, in organizational campaigns people need guardrails and guidance, which is why framing the objectives and parameters and getting the questions right is so important. How the campaign is positioned internally can vary considerably from company to company and among divisions or teams. The design of a campaign targeting scientists in a pharmaceutical company will have a different tone than one targeting employees in a call center.
While their story lines may differ, all campaigns hold the promise of renewing company pride by creating an energizing narrative that invites participation.
Keys to Success:
Pitch questions at the right altitude.
In developing a framework and set of inquiries, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the current process and teamwork challenges across an organization. Brainstorming in strategy workshops with senior leaders is a first step toward identifying gaps and opportunities that can inspire a productive theme for the event.
Involve leaders in promoting your event.
Team leaders must be committed to the role they’ll play when your crowdsourcing challenge opens — facilitating meetings with employees to share best practices for participation, and encouraging productive discussions and ideation during the event. Designing and deploying online and offline communications and adding urgency by making the crowdsourcing challenge a discrete event are also essential for generating employee interest and excitement.
Engage participants and listen in.
A company-wide launch event is a great way to elevate the campaign and prepare employees. Use it to show off your online innovation portal, highlight key information, and provide tips and tools for ideation. Generating daily reports for leaders will also help them encourage higher participation and provide guidance throughout the event.
Analyze, categorize and share results.
Conduct working sessions with the core project team to review and discuss results, with the aim of developing a high-level action plan. Share the data with employees along with implementation plans for solutions.
Many leaders are concerned about the lack of control that goes with a broad crowdsourcing conversation, but there are a number of factors that should allay these concerns. You can trust in the wisdom of the crowd to correct and report unruly colleagues. Ensuring employees submit ideas using their real names can also help as anonymity removes accountability and gives shelter to disruptive contributors.
People are intrinsically motivated to do their best to help their company succeed and take seriously the trust you’re placing in them.
At the very top, leaders have to understand the needs of their employees and, guided by sociometric and crowdsourcing data, learn to adjust their policies, processes and behaviors. The organizations that commit to crowdsourcing and quickly executing employees’ ideas will be more innovative and collaborative than their peers.
This article was originally published in City AM on January 11, 2017