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4 Ways You Can Tap Into Your Team’s Ideas

Column Five is a visual agency specializing in infographics and data visualization with brands like Red Bull, Microsoft, and GE. They’re focused on nurturing a collaborative, inclusive culture that feeds creativity and its business. Here, cofounder Ross Crooks explains how the company taps into its employees’ good ideas. When you bring on a new employee, you aren’t just filling a position. You are adding a new element to the collective ecosystem of your company.

“When you bring on a new employee, you aren’t just filling a position. You are adding a new element to the collective ecosystem of your company.”

Each person has a wealth of experience, thoughts, and ideas that extends far beyond their prescribed job duties. That individual knowledge and capability is a potent force that can help lift your entire company—but only when it is properly channeled. Far too often a team’s bright ideas, useful insights, and meaningful contributions are buried. They’re overlooked simply because there is no convenient way for them to be expressed. So, how do you cultivate a culture that actively nurtures these ideas? Here are four ways we do it at Column Five.

1) Talk About Feelings

column five meeting
A monthly Town Hall meeting at Column Five to touch base with each other.

As in any healthy relationship, honesty and communication are key. This is no different in a company. We know too well that nothing kills a culture like contempt, and those problems often stem from a lack of dialogue. When a round of layoffs comes out of the blue with no followup from leadership or a project goes poorly, because of major miscommunication, frustration turns to resentment. Soon everyone shuts down. In short: No matter the problem, it will only grow if it isn’t addressed properly. Even worse than a sudden hit to morale is a slow, almost imperceptible decline.

“As in any healthy relationship, honesty and communication are key”

To avoid this, we created a monthly “pulse check”. A survey asking employees to provide anonymous feedback on their job satisfaction and workload. We keep the survey short so it doesn’t take anyone more than a couple of minutes. Once a month, the whole company meets for a Town Hall to discuss the survey results, answer questions, and have an open, honest dialogue. This is also a chance for leadership to talk about the company’s direction. During the meeting, we share our financials and discuss any big changes to ensure everyone is on the same page and has an open forum. It’s two-way accountability that helps us work better individually and as a whole. At times it is uneventful; other times it’s uncomfortable. But it’s generally therapeutic. Regardless, it’s an important symbol of openness, transparency, and inclusion.

2) Mix Up the Routine

column five hack day

Scenes from our last Hack Day: Patio cleanup, new office decor, and an off-site lunch to rethink some business strategy.

Once per quarter, we pay our employees to not work for a day—well, to not work on client projects at least. We call it Hack Day. It’s a day when we shut down shop, grab some food, and work on solving our own problems instead. It’s a unique chance to spend quality time together in service of our greater good.

Each Hack Day we identify a certain internal challenge or opportunity to work through, then we break into groups to try to tackle it. Everyone participates, no matter what their position is in the company. This gives everyone a chance to work in different capacities than they usually do. Our finance manager may pitch a great marketing idea, or a producer might rethink how we manage our freelance designer database.

In addition to solving real problems, it gives us a chance to work with coworkers we don’t normally interact with. It gives invaluable face time and an opportunity to exchange ideas. Whether it’s building a surfboard rack to clean up our office patio, brainstorming for an interactive installation, or identifying new revenue streams, this collective effort helps us foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation.

3) Empower Employees to Do Things on Their Own

column five art director
An Art Director thought our conference booths could use a little style. We let him go nuts.

column five outdoor meeting
An outdoor meeting—why not?

It’s frustrating when you know you have the right answer, but you don’t have the chance to prove it. Unfortunately, this happens too often when a company boxes its employees in. Of course, without clearly defined roles, it is difficult for a growing company to work efficiently. But if everyone’s forced to always “stay in their lane,” it’s easy to miss out on some really good work. So we devised a process through which individuals can execute self-initiated projects. These range from personal pet projects (reorganize the design portfolio) to larger efforts (create a company Wiki to store all the information). Employees can submit their idea to leadership, get the green light, and run with it. This system empowers everyone to take ownership of their position. Allowing them to be engaged, active in their own work, and demonstrate their problem-solving abilities.

4) Have Regular One-on-One Conversations

column five discussion

It is commonly accepted (or should be) that the annual review is a dinosaur. How can you nurture a relationship that is conducive to open communication when you only meet once a year in an uncomfortable formal setting?

“It is commonly accepted (or should be) that the annual review is a dinosaur.”

Conversations that should be happening in real time are pushed out for months. For a team to work well together, we need consistent, collaborative communication.

In addition to our monthly company-wide meetings, we conduct quarterly check-ins. These are between leadership and employees. This one-on-one facetime gives both parties an opportunity to provide candid feedback in a less formal (less nerve-wracking) setting. We keep our compensation reviews independent of these check-ins. This way employees can be candid and constructive about their strengths and weaknesses, rather than position themselves for a raise.

A few simple questions serve as a template for the conversation, but it can go in any direction.

This helps us address concerns early and often and helps outline expectations, goals, and to-dos on both sides. In this sort of open environment, employees are more apt to share and contribute. At the same time, leadership has a direct line to what is really happening in employees’ day to day.

No matter your industry or team size, giving your employees a venue to voice their feelings, ideas, and feedback is the best way to keep people engaged and happy. You will build a better company as a result.

Ross Crooks
by Ross Crooks Ross Crooks is cofounder and CCO of Visage, a data visualization platform, and a cofounder of Column Five, an agency specializing in the creation and distribution of infographics, data visualization, and other visual content. He is co-author of the book, "Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling," and teaches a course on Visualization of Information at Columbia University in New York. Follow him @rtcrooks.