At Brunel’s, for over a year now, there has been an internal Think Tank: a group of employees, that convenes once a month to think about issues the management puts before them. The solutions they propose are being evaluated by the management and – if approved – implemented.
Sandra Schuerewegen is assigned administrator at Brunel Belgium. She has taken the initiative for Think Tank: ‘I have always thought it important to hear the ideas of our people. You want to keep in touch and at the same time stimulate employees to think along. I have often discovered that when you do that, you come to much more encompassing solutions, you maybe wouldn’t have thought of as management alone. Upon that with implementation afterwards, the support for it becomes bigger.’
Our own personnel were also an asking party: ‘Some staff members informally let me known they needed some kind of platform where they could bundle their ideas and that would go a bit further than the idea box at the reception. That was exactly what I wanted too: that ideas come from within the organization itself, rather than from the top.’
How do you do that, a Think Tank?
The decision was taken just like that, but then the question came up: how? ‘How can we best organize such a platform? How can we see to it that people can think along, but in a constructive manner? We wanted a decent, broad approach, to see to it that employees stay interested and don’t disengage after a while.’
Soon it became clear that the organization didn’t have the necessary expertise within its own ranks. ‘Then we started searching for who could coach us in this. So that’s how we encountered Bedenk, to boost that creative process. Should we have done this ourselves, we would have never dared to think outside of the box that much. Moreover, people would not have felt that comfortable. Often we are so busy taking care of our daily business that we forget to newly, freshly approach things together.’
As a first step a one-time session was chosen: ‘We started on our yearly kick-off in January. There together with the whole staff we thought about how we could improve the organization even further. That was very well received. So much so, that we decided to continue and use those ideas as a starting point for Think Tank.’
Daring to jump!
The start of Think Tank was also coached by Bedenk. Beforehand the management itself would have to think thoroughly about the right assignment and the way the whole process would work. After that a team was formed based on motivation and a good mix of think styles, expertise, and provenance within the organization. Only then could the first Think Tank really start operating. ‘Soon we discovered that this is a very specific process, very different from our day to day way of working. That’s why it is good that you can count on an external specialist, who knows how to manage such a process perfectly.’
Of course, such an initiative always feels a bit like a risk. ‘In the beginning I was a bit apprehensive whether the participants would keep taking things seriously in the long run. The fear it would become a ‘talk barrack’ was there. But the absolute opposite turned out to be true. Thanks to the professional approach of Bedenk everybody was motivated to pitch in and soon the first concrete ideas came up.’
The way such a think process occurs, differs very much from business as usual. ‘I discovered that people didn’t immediately look for the well-known, easy solutions, but that instead quite a lot of attention was given to a thorough analysis of the question only to think a lot broader after that. My concern that it all would become a bit ‘too creative’ was unfounded. I discovered along the way that such a process is the best way to come to really innovative ideas.’
A new way of working
Every month the management team, together with the facilitator, formulates a new question for the Think Tank. One or two weeks later, the board is presented with detailed proposals. ‘For me as a manager it feels very good. Sometimes, accurate analyses are made, that make you think, touché, that hits home, but it doesn’t feel threatening at all, on the contrary. Very enriching!’
Also for the participants, the new way of working takes a bit of getting used to. Ruth testifies: ‘In the beginning you think: how can I contribute to the issues put before us? I am no manager. I wouldn’t know where to start. But at the Think Tank sessions, the facilitator hands you methods by which you advance with small steps and you end up having a concrete proposal.’
‘I also have the feeling that I really have been able to contribute, like everybody else, by the way. It’s like you get sucked in and can’t do anything else but participate. That gives you the confidence to take on the most challenging assignments again next time.’
This approach differs from the way things were handled in the past. Ruth: ‘Internally there have been initiatives to ‘brain storm’ in the afternoon, but the results of this were no comparison to what we realize now. In that sense, it is a good thing that an external party was called in to manage the whole process.’
In this process, also the management is being coached by the facilitator. Schuerewegen: ‘I have learned to take my time and listen to the real message. Here we are always very busy, always building up the business together, so every once in a while we forget to pay attention to interesting new visions. The Think Tank facilitator helps to fast and efficiently manage the discussion of new ideas. This way I can draw a lot of inspiration from given presentations in a short time.'
The Think Tank meanwhile has blossomed into a steady and reliable sounding board for the management: ‘Inspired by the Think Tank I have brought to the fore issues I thought were not that important, but participants asked to make a priority. And in the end they were right!’
More ideas than we can handle
The themes covered are very diverse: ‘For instance, the Think Tank has taken a close look at the onboarding process of new employees, put together an absenteeism plan, suggested improvements for the internal communication, etc.’
The Think Tank analyzes the problem, thinks up as many solutions as possible, chooses the best one of those, and works these over to concrete proposals. ‘Proposals are made regularly now. Of course, you can’t say yes all the time. It is great to be able to think along positively for a bit, but at the same time it is also comfortable that it is accepted that some things just can’t be done.’
At the same time the output of the Think Tank is so high that Schuerewegen sees another challenge come up: ‘So many ideas are being generated that we as an organization can’t implement all of these in short order. I think that that is our pitfall now that we have to be aware of: not wanting to do too many things all at the same time, because we want to put quality first. We will steer the process away from that in the near future.'
Schuerewegen also sees a clear evolution on the part of the participants: ‘In the meantime it really has become a mature group. The participants of the Think Tank have come to full bloom and have acquired some very practical presentation and other techniques in the process. They find it easier to voice their opinion, also towards each other. All of a sudden I see people of different departments working together, also outside of Think Tank, where they used to find each other a lot less easy.'
‘I want to continue this project. For the time being still under the guidance of an external specialist. But given time we want to learn to do this ourselves. We will see if we can manage. If we were to notice that the process would peter out, we could always ask for help again. That makes one feel safe.’
“I can absolutely recommend colleagues who are contemplating this to implement this in their company! It is enriching for the organization as a whole as well as for the individual participants. Personally, I see two big advantages: it is a glorious informal sounding board for the management and it is a beautiful way to let people grow by having them operate outside of their comfort zone. For instance, people who have never done or dared before have to present project proposals at the MT meetings. They also gain a lot of satisfaction from that, I am sure.’
ABOUT SANDRA SCHUEREWEGEN
Assigned administrator Brunel Belgium
Degree in Economics, specialization marketing
50 years of age
Motto: ‘Wanting to have it all is impossible, so make those choices that will make you the happiest’.
Ambition: Build Brunel up successfully by participatory leadership
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