In our recent research on courage and innovation, nearly 50% of employees surveyed reported they withhold their ideas, simply because “no one asked” or lacked the confidence to share. “But I have an open door,” you might say. That’s not enough; it’s passive. If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move. Making your team feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute — especially when working remotely — requires a cadence of regularly asking “courageous questions.” When the team brings a problem or a decision to be made, help them take ownership of it by asking thoughtful questions that build confidence. Here’s a set you can use almost in any situation, and any business:
- What problem are we solving for? What impact is it having, and where?
- What’s the root cause? And the root cause of that? What data/facts do we have? What data/facts do we need to get?
- What do you recommend we do? What do you think? What else have you considered? What’s the greatest risk in your view? How do we mitigate it?
- What help do you need from me? What help do you need from the team?
After a couple of these sessions, your team will learn to come back more prepared and taking a leading role in the solution. This will free you up to work on the big picture items that can fuel growth.
It’s because most types of businesses are not really scalable, to begin with. The only sustainable way to scale for most companies is to grow revenue while decreasing operating costs. For many traditional small businesses (i.e., bakeries, restaurants, hardware stores, consulting, etc.), this can be incredibly difficult. Even if you develop a scalable business model, there is yet another obstacle that can prevent you from growing the right way: decision fatigue. In a growing and evolving company, entrepreneurs can’t do everything – and when they try to make every big and small decision, it affects the quality of those decisions. It can lead to being unnecessarily risk-averse, maintaining the status quo, or even avoiding decisions altogether.
Throughout our research, we discovered several effective methods leaders use to draw out people’s raw feedback, best thinking, and new ideas. Here are some of our favorites to get you started:
- What is the biggest problem we have that no one talks about?
- What is one thing we do that really annoys our customers?
- What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
- What’s one thing I must do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
- What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
- What are you most afraid of with this program/project/process?
- What is the biggest source of conflict you’re having working with the X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
- What’s the biggest saboteur of our success?
An Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost is most often used as an economic term, but it’s a useful concept for considering your weaknesses. The concept is fairly simple: given a set of limited resources, an opportunity cost represents what you lose out on when you choose to spend your resources on one alternative over another. In this case, you have a limited amount of time and money available. Let’s say you have a “lack of sales ability” and “lack of accounting ability” listed in your column of weaknesses. If you focus your time and money on developing the skills necessary to become a better salesperson, is the benefit greater to you than spending those resources on developing your accounting skills? If you evaluate those weaknesses and decide that improving your sales ability is more important, what are you supposed to do about that accounting weakness? One person’s weakness is another person’s strength. It’s okay that you’re not going to be great at everything. Instead, improve what you can and bring people alongside you who have strengths that balance your weaknesses. Many entrepreneurs bring this up as an “aha” moment for them. Entrepreneurs tend to try and do everything by themselves and quickly burn out. Once they were able to bring in the right people who could do some things better than them, their business became more productive and effective. For a business to grow, there has to be more than one decision-maker. There are two main routes to this:
1. Delegate Responsibility
In a typical small business, employees find and diagnose problems, while owners focus on solving them. However, delegating these day-to-day decisions to employees frees up owners to work on the big picture items that can fuel growth. Delegation involves giving someone else the responsibility to perform a task that is actually part of your own job. ... Increased responsibility is an important factor in improving morale and job satisfaction. It is noticeable that managers who delegate successfully usually experience lower absenteeism and staff turnover.
2. Play to Your Strengths
Entrepreneurs can’t do it all, so it’s best to play to your strengths. To do this, outsource business departments that are outside of your wheelhouse. Often those may include things like bookkeeping, marketing, customer service, or website design. The first task in the exercise is to collect feedback from various people inside and outside work. By gathering input from various sources—family members, past and present colleagues, friends, teachers, and so on—you can develop a much broader and richer understanding of yourself than you can from standard performance evaluation. For naturally analytical people, the exercise's analysis portion serves both to integrate the feedback and develop a larger picture of their capabilities. We have noted that while people remember criticism, awareness of faults doesn’t necessarily translate into better performance. Once you discover who you are at the top of your game, you can use your strengths to shape better the positions you choose to play—both now and in the next phase of your career. Decentralizing decision-making is one of the first steps in scaling your business – and no matter how you do this, it frees you to focus on the big problems.