The Best Ideas (Should But Often Don’t) Rise to the Top

closeup of blades of grass

Four years ago, our family moved into a newly constructed home that was built on an old farm property. In the early fall that year, we contracted someone to plant grass seed. As the spring approached, we waited in anticipation for our beautiful green grass to sprout, and some of it did. But more frequently, what rose out of the earth was quack grass. It turns out that quack grass doesn’t need fertilizer or water to grow. In fact, had we been okay with its presence, we could have allowed it to take over our yard at a much-reduced cost than conventional grass. It turns out that the best grass doesn’t naturally rise to the top of the soil.

I often hear leaders say that the best ideas rise to the top of their organizations and of course they think that. But how true is this in reality? While I cannot speak for other organizations, I am always concerned at Hoffer Plastics about whose ideas are not being heard because I have discovered that like Kentucky blue grass, these ideas are not going to naturally sprout to the top of the organization. Rather, we have to be intentional so that we do not miss them. To that end, here are three actions to keep in mind.

First, leaders need to over-communicate their willingness to hear new ideas. Hearing ideas means that the leader not only listens to the idea, but also considers its merit. If no action is ever taken on ideas coming from lower levels of the organization, don’t expect a lot of input! Earlier this year, for example, a few of our team members voiced concern about a perceived lack of training with regards to workplace violence. The tragedy in Aurora, Illinois, soon followed, and so did our Executive Team’s decision to engage our local fire and police departments to setup two Saturday training events in April and May, which we most likely would not have prioritized had our team members on the production floor not voiced their opinion. Their idea that we needed training was spot on.

Next, leaders need to be willing to listen to great ideas from anyone. What am I about to write may be a little controversial, but my experience indicates that it is true: Some team members have lost influence with their peers due to their personal behavior. Therefore, when they have a “good idea” it doesn’t go very far because people are not listening to them anymore. These people are most likely good at what they do –some are even great which can also be a hindrance to peers listening. Still, leaders need to create rhythms – one-on-one check-ins along with other communications –so that they ensure they are hearing from these people. Good ideas won’t naturally rise to the top, and good ideas can come from just about everywhere, so leaders need to be canvasing for them.

Finally, leaders need to filter those that have 20 good ideas before the first morning meeting. This has been an area of weakness for me in the past because I find new ideas, and the people that come up with them, energizing. I would much rather surround myself with these kinds of people than the “just so you know [all the bad stuff] that is happening around here” kind. (My comeback to this now is “and what are you doing about it?”) Still, the organization cannot go in multiple directions at once –another weakness we are personally resolving –with team members no longer having the mental stamina to focus on multiple initiatives. To this end, leaders need to carefully reign in idea creators, without putting a muzzle on them, and filter what makes sense given the direction the company is going. You simply cannot do everything, even if the ideas are “good.”

While the list above is not meant to be exhaustive, it will help leaders ensure that more of the good ideas rise to the top. And more importantly, these actions will help some of the good ideas to take root and sprout.