Home » Change Management » The Most Underused Project Management Tool – Asking Your Staff’s Opinion

“On … his first day, [Stephen] Elop [new CEO of struggling Nokia] sent an e-mail to every employee asking what they thought he should change, what should be left alone,and what they feared he wouldn’t understand.”  Bloomberg Businessweek, “Elop’s Fable,” June 6th, 2011.

Project Management Tool Ask Your Staff for OpinionsI love it.  I don’t know how many new leaders I’ve seen come charging in and start changing things without understanding their new organization.   Understanding means knowing what is working, what is not working, and what is possible.  Often there appears to be a hubris: I’m the new guy so I’m all knowing and powerful, which results in destruction of a lot of good things going on in the organization (see for example how to avoid crushing your pockets of excellence).

Elop reportedly answered every one of the roughly 2000 responses he received.  I worked with one CEO who successfully did this same kind of thing (and in the same industry that Elop is now in).  It is a great technique that helps the new leader quickly baseline themselves with what is good and bad as well as encouraging folks at all levels to share their ideas. (See how old e-mail can be a great project management tool.)

I’m personally convinced that any organization that did no more than listen to and act on the ideas of their employees would certainly continue to be in business.  That’s a great project management tool that we all have at our fingertips, right now.

How do you keep up on the good ideas and activities that are going on in your organization?

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6 thoughts on “The Most Underused Project Management Tool – Asking Your Staff’s Opinion

  1. Rob says:

    Perhaps the lack of response was due to fear of reprisal? Being on both sides of the fence as a manager and the managed at different times this would be a very true statement. Most surveys I have seen only implicate employees when read no matter how “anonymous” you make them. As a manager are you really willing to let your staff take risks or is it a buzzword? These are important things to consider when you are asking for their honest opinions. The nugget you are looking for is in the pile of rocks, but if you blame the rocks for your lack of progress you are doomed before you start.

    Rob

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Rob,

      Yes, I think management’s request for input is often taken like the classic “suggestion box.” It is there for show, it is not really intended to be used and in fact using it is a very risky thing (“why didn’t you take this to your supervisor first?”).

      I knew one senior manager, who wanted honest feedback from the “troops” (he was an Air Force Brigadier General) to reduce the filtering done by his managers. He didn’t ask for inputs. Instead, he had a randomly selected group of people attend a meeting he called (I was one of the random selection). He explained at the meeting exactly what he was doing (“going around his Colonels”) and that anything said in this meeting was to stay in this meeting. He then said he wanted to hear anything anyone wanted to say. Boy, did we have a honest, sometimes brutally honest, discussion. What he did was to take away the “choice” to attend, so that supervisors could not “negatively reflect” on someone who got picked, because it was not their choice.

      I use to walk around and randomly drop in on different members of my staff. We would sit and talk about whatever they wanted to bring up. Sometimes, depending upon what they seem to want to talk about, we went to my office or found a conference room (staff were in cubes). I always thought it was a bit humorous when my managers would come running to me the next day and say they heard I was talking to someone in their department (I often did this later in the day, just before normal quitting time). They finally got use to this, and never could tell the difference between one of my own initiatives and one I picked up from a suggestion from the staff.

      Fighting for feedback is a worthwhile activity (by reducing the fear of reprisal). Too many “successful” managers get a bit too caught up in the notion that they are the idea generators and don’t pay attention to the rich amount of good ideas right outside their office door.

      Good observations.

      Bruce

  2. Pam Stanton says:

    Great post, and I am a big fan of the “ask the people” approach– especially for new leaders.

    When I read that the Nokia CEO received 2,000 responses, I was curious, so I checked out what % of the employee population that represented. Turns out it’s only about 1.5% I hope Elop also considered that sad turnout… clearly most of the employees were not motivated to respond. I’d be very interested in what’s behind that.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    Pam Stanton

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Pam,

      Nice analysis. As with any data, especially reported in the news, I take the 2000 as probably in the ballpark. What I don’t know is what would be normal in this kind of situation. I was always surprised that the CEO in one Fortune 50 I worked in always respond to my e-mails (so I kept them short, infrequent and to the point). I wondered with 10s of thousands of employees how he could find the time. I suspect it was because not that many actually took the opportunity and e-mailed him.

      In my own, much smaller, organizations — I relied primarily on walking around and talking to people. I know the sample size does not need to be that big to get a general sense of what needs to be done (the patterns appear and become consistent – and talking with more people doesn’t generate many new major issues).

      Thanks for doing the math!

      Bruce

  3. Bruce Benson says:

    Ankit,

    When I was an individual contributor, all I seemed to do was project management (around my technical work – I thought of it as time management). When I was a PM, all I seemed to do was project management (of course). When I was a CIO, all I seemed to do was project management. When I was a consultant, all I seemed to do was project management to help people figure out how to successfully manage their projects. In every case, the tools I used came right out of the PM toolkit. I believe PM is a fundamental skill and is used (if they realize it or not) by everyone at all levels.

    Yes, sometimes we just have to do what senior management tells us to do. If we want to improve things, however, we often have to take some risk and push back (in one way or another) against what we are being asked to do.

    1. http://pmtoolsthatwork.com/disrupt-the-project-to-make-the-big-improvements/

    2. http://pmtoolsthatwork.com/project-management-initiative-or-insubordination/

    Regards,

    Bruce

  4. Ankit says:

    I agree wait strike that I whole-heartedly believe in what you are saying and try implementing this principle all the time but there comes a time when you just have to do what Senior Management wants though it goes against all suggestions from staff. Not always but lets just say almost always..:p

    You talk about CEOs but to me CEO is not really a project manager, he or she is the visionary and the one who sponsors projects directly or indirectly that we project managers manage.

    I may be wrong or just under-experienced…

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