Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented by a janitor at a Frito-Lays plant who, after noticing that the company didn't have any spicy flavors, called the CEO and pitched the idea.
Amazon Web Services was invented by a network engineer after his manager asked him to find ways to scale up Amazon's infrastructure more efficiently. The duo pitched the idea of selling virtual servers as a service to CEO Jeff Bezos — and the rest is history.
Subway's $5 Footlongs were invented by a franchisee who, after seeing sales slump on weekends consistently, created a new offer and pitched the idea to the company.
When leaders hear examples like these, many wonder: Why can't this happen in my company? They can become quick to shake up organizational structures and create innovation labs. Might there be an easier and less expensive option?
There is. And, as I discovered from interviewing over 500 professionals across different industries and job types for my book, "The Unspoken Rules," it begins with a simple fill-in-the-blank exercise:
- [My employer/client] helps [X people] to [do X things] by [X methods].
- Recently, [my employer] has been [pursuing X initiatives] to [accomplish X goals].
- [My employer/client] competes with [X competitors] because [of X reasons].
- As a(n) [X position], I help [the team/department/company accomplish X goals].
- If I have an idea, I should share it with [X people] by [X methods].
Try filling in these blanks yourself. How many can you fill in?
Now, ask a co-worker. Can they complete the exercise? How well employees at your company can fill in these blanks will tell you a lot about whether everyone is aiming for the same North Star — or simply waiting to do whatever they're told.
Most leaders never think to have this conversation with their team members. But people's answers can also tell you a lot about how ready employees are to recognize — and seize — opportunities when they come knocking.
Is your team having trouble filling in these blanks? If so, it may be time to explain the basics:
- What does your company do? Why?
- What is the company trying to achieve over the next month, quarter, and year? Why?
- Who are the company's competitors? Why?
- How does the industry work and where is it headed?
- How does each person and each team help the company achieve its goals?
- Where should people bring new ideas?
- How can people stay up to date on the latest developments in the world, in the industry, and in the company?
The idea is to get everyone, regardless of seniority or tenure, to see the big picture.
We know the CEO does this. But at a time when the pace of change is accelerating and disruption looms constantly, it's not enough to entrust a single person — or only the C-suite — to think strategically. Everyone needs to think strategically.
Trying to figure out what your customers really want? Your sales people — who talk to customers everyday — may have better ideas than your board of directors. Trying to increase your company's appeal to Gen Z? Your interns — who are Gen Z — may have better ideas than your head of marketing. Trying to reduce operating costs? Your facilities team — who run your facilities — may have better ideas than your head of finance.
Strategic thinking might be the job of senior leaders, but senior leaders don't have a monopoly on good ideas. Good ideas can come from anywhere — and from anyone. But they don't come out of nowhere ... they come from people who can see the big picture.
Although setting expectations is necessary, it is not sufficient. Culture matters. As Tesla CEO Elon Musk notes, "Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the 'chain of command.'" And as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is known for preaching, "Okay, is this going to destroy the company? Because if not, then let them test it."
In other words, conversation is not enough. You also need the processes in place to surface good ideas — and reward them. But it's a critical start.
Getting everyone to keep the broader objective in mind means having tens, hundreds, if not thousands, of people thinking for the best interests of the company — and not just a few insular executives. When this happens, it's simply a matter of time before an idea pops up that could change your company's trajectory forever.
Gorick Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students and professionals. He has worked in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group and is a researcher with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. He is the author of "The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right."