“Sharon” is someone who, at 65 years of age, has never managed another person professionally. The bulk of her working life has been spent working in the stock room of a chain discount department store in a San Francisco suburb. Her non-union job earned her little more than minimum wage, but the incentive for staying was access to health benefits for her family. I asked her first what she thought it took to bring about change in a large organization. “Change in my company is easy. If they don’t like what someone is doing, they get rid of that person and bring in someone else. We get new managers constantly.” I asked about whether or not any of these changes were positive in the eyes of workers. “You just said ‘change,’” she noted. “Positive change is something else. That, I never saw.”
Sharon told me about a game that she and the other stockroom employees would play. It was called “If They Only Knew.” The game was simple: think about management—from the store manager to the CEO—and imagine what life in the stockroom would be like “If They [Management] Only Knew.” Here’s an example:
IF THEY ONLY KNEW was played in jest, but everyone in the stockroom knew that they held valuable information that was simply not making it to top management. Employees joked:
- "If they only knew" that the reason they won't be increasing profits is because everything is breaking before it ever gets out to the sales floor.
- "If they only knew" that workers' comp claims are about to increase is because few--if any--of us can lift these boxes without hurting ourselves.
...and so on.
The point being, management didn't know. They could not know, because they did not ask. Not only did they lack a system of input from employees, they flat-out refused to listen when approached. Workers were blocked at every turn, and were left holding critical information that took nearly a year for management to ultimately sort out.
When management is getting ready to design and implement a decision--even one that seems small-- take the time to consider the voices of employees who will most directly be affected.
- Better decisions overall, with more clarity about implications.
- More ownership of successes and failures across the entire organization.
- Demonstrating that management values the front-line experience. It is difficult to believe that some companies still don't do this...
- Challenges management to acknowledge and remember that they don't hold all of the information and answers.
- Play a round of "If WE only knew" with fellow managers, focusing on decisions that have not been successful in the past.
- Identify who in the firm might have been able to help management predict those undesirable outcomes. Whether we--as managers-- like it or not, there was likely a group of people who saw disaster coming.
- Build a cross-functional team made up of people from several levels of your organization to own this challenge