As small business owners, we’re used to stretching our staff to their limits to help us transform our ideas into processes and procedures and hopefully to grow our business and create a successful corporate culture.  Inevitably there are those amongst us who will question and confront our strategies.  As an employee, I always felt I was a pretty good problem solver and even better at finding problems with other people’s ideas.  I could certainly lay claim to playing “devils advocate” more often than being the champion of a new cause. However, now that I own a business, I understand that handling the creativity of other people appropriately is critical to keeping staff involved and engaged in the business.  Every situation has the potential to reveal hidden opportunities to grow your business. Listening objectively and with an open mind to what naysayers have to share may just uncover some nuggets of truth and new ideas you can use.

An added bonus is that this process may provide some serious motivation to employees and managers alike that really do know more about something than you do.  A business owner’s ability to tap into these creative resources could help open the door to a real strategic breakthrough for new product or service, a way to reduce costs, improve productivity or increase customer retention.  At worst, you exercise the right side of your brain and your team can have a little fun while fine tuning their ideas to make your company better.

Here are a few suggestions on how to turn those potentially confrontational idea sessions into a chance for everyone to learn something.  Done right, there can be something revolutionary about accepting criticism with creativity in mind.

First: Resist the urge to be confrontational.  When you interrupt only to voice your opposition, you kill the discussion and the potential for future discussions or idea sharing. If you blow ideas out of the water after the first sentence, you will only discourage your staff from voicing unique perspectives and eventually from participating at all. Realize that as an owner, everything you say has an impact, so it’s important not to react too quickly to the ideas of others or to critiques of your own ideas.  Listen carefully to understand what is  being said and respond positively.  Keep an open mind, ask clarifying questions to explore people’s opinions and ideas, understand their thinking process and make your staff feel valued and involved.  Being right doesn’t develop your team or encourage creativity, but getting them involved does.  I think a lot of entrepreneurs would tell you, “it all started with this crazy idea….”

Second: Recognize that most people want to be associated with success and ultimately become successful as individuals.   However not very many are skilled at getting or giving constructive criticism.  Leading these conversations successfully can be done by focusing on what actions they think should be taken to overcome the challenges your business may be facing.  Making staff feel as though they are part of a solution will go a long way to empowering them to make good decisions on their own as well as uncovering solutions that might not have otherwise been found.  You will also benefit from better overall buy-in from a team that helped develop any new ideas you want to implement.   At a minimum ask for feedback of ideas or changes before they are implemented.

Third: Get out of the box.  Unconventional thinking and opinions can be a great source of inspiration and still contain a relevant perspective on the issues.  Just because you have always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that is the best or only way.  Don’t shoot down those far fetched ideas from the start just because they sound crazy.  Work to understand what the person is really thinking before you dismiss their contribution.  This is the opportunity to get employees at every level involved.  Creating a real team involves getting everyone off the bench from time to time.  Lead by example and offer some zany idea and see how your staff comes to life.  Plus this makes staff meetings a lot more fun.

Fourth: Remember you’re still the owner.  You are obligated to listen, lead discussions, and encourage participation. You are not under any obligation to implement the ideas you hear.  Circumstances change quickly these days and unusual ideas from a few weeks ago might actually be practical and make a lot of sense later on so save them in a file to revisit later. It’s important to remain versatile in your thinking and see how the ideas of others can fit together to create new solutions or approaches.  Done well these techniques will lead to improving products and services and ultimately sales.

Finally: Validate your direction.  Before you make the leap of faith on a major new business course, share you ideas with colleagues.  Bouncing ideas off other successful people encourages the next level of creative problem solving. Seeking out opinions of friends and other business people can be a real eye opener, especially if they are from various backgrounds and industries.  This process can help you better understand how to apply new strategies to help you stand out from your competition.  There is something to be said to having a “fresh” set of eyes look at a situation and to being asked questions from an external perspective.  Once you make it this far, take the feedback back to your team and share it with them.  Get their point of view and ideas.   A few iterations of this process and you be vetting great ideas all the time not to mention doing wonders to hold on to the talent you need to continue to be great.

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