My fondest memories of elementary school teachers are of the ones who came into class and spontaneously announced that we were going on a field trip. Or that we were going to hold that day's class outside under the big oak on the playground.
Why do I have such vivid memories of this? Because they changed the environment in which we expected to meet.
In consulting with clients on how to make their work environment more "idea friendly," I have discovered a very simple principle: People are more likely to contribute -- creatively -- if the environment in which they work is fun, innovative and creative. I have written extensively on the benefits of shattering the stereotype of doing business with your customers. But this principle applies internally as well. We need to constantly change the environment in our organizations as well.
I once received a letter from a manufacturer's representative who had heard me extol the virtues of changing one's environment. He explained that he had received a letter from his largest distributor, in Ann Arbor, Mich., inviting him to present his line of goods to the client's national sales force. The letter explained that the representative would be the third person to present his line and that he had an hour-and-a-half time slot.
It took no rocket scientist to figure out that these people would have been sitting for more than three hours before this guy got his chance at them.
Remembering the environmental issue, this rep came up with a masterful idea. Upon arriving at the meeting, he advised 80 salespeople to "pack up your things. We are going on a field trip!"
He took them outside to rented vans which transported the group only blocks away to the University of Michigan football stadium. He had arranged to hold the meeting at the 50-yard line of an empty, 107,000-seat stadium with box lunches for everyone. Which of the three presentations do you think the group remembered that day?
Changing your environment can drastically alter your own productivity as well. This may sound extreme, but it has been proven, in a study conducted in 1997 by the Wisconsin Manufacturer's Council, that simple changes by some of its subjects increased productivity by an average of 20 percent. Changes ranged from simply redecorating the cafeteria to drastically altering the workspace of employees.
One change that caught my attention was very simple. A Milwaukee manufacturer instituted and promoted -- in a very fun and creative manner -- a new suggestion program. The managers created a character called 'Sidney Suggestion,' and this traditionally staid organization embarked on a 12-month program to encourage every employee to submit suggestions with the promise of incentives and prizes. The company ultimately reported that the suggestion program not only improved morale, but also resulted in as much as a 35 percent rise in cost savings in areas in which the suggestions were implemented.
I'm suggesting that you look at your environment through your internal clients' eyes; those people from whom you expect certain results every day. Perhaps you could encourage them to bring in something which reminds them of their childhoods to sit on their desks. Or maybe they have to buy something for their desk that is a humorous symbol of what they really do at the company.
Get everybody together after about a week and have them share what they brought and why. You likely will see things such as a miniature fire hydrant with an explanation that this person feels like she puts out fires all day.
Finally, what ever happened to that field trip to which our teachers invited us? I think we should re-introduce the field trip into our professional lives. Why not take your entire staff to one of your vendor's factories or to a totally unrelated business?
Offer prizes for people who can make connections between processes they see and processes you have implemented in your business. Give incentives to your people to make suggestions related to what they see.
It might be a couple of the best hours you could invest in the future of your company. Jeff Tobe, primary colorer at Monroeville-based Coloring Outside the Lines, teaches diverse businesses how to be creative in their sales and marketing strategies. Subscribe to his free creativity newsletter at www.jefftobe.com or contact him at (412) 373-6592.