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How to Encourage More Ideas from Your Team

Ask these questions to inspire better problem solving

Your agents know how to improve the customer experience, streamline the training, and make your tools 100% easier to use. And yet, this is a scene I see in almost every center I work with.

I do a focus group. One of the agents presents a BRILLIANT idea. The center director loves it and agrees to implement it. When we go back to celebrate the agent for their contribution, they say, "I've been telling my team leader this for a year. How come they'll hear it from you, and not me?"

Idea sharing

It happens at the team leader level too. In a recent call center visit, one of the strong team leaders said, "We want to help, and we have great ideas. The problem is, I'm starting to feel like a nagging wife, and the company is a husband who won't listen." Ouch.

Of course, we run into the inverse problem too. Agents tell us “no one wants to hear my ideas, so I’ve just stopped bringing them up.” Or, last time I brought something up I got in trouble, so now I keep my mouth shut.

How to Draw Out Your Team’s Great ideas

If you want more ideas from your team, it takes more than asking a generic “How can we improve” question.

Your team has questions of their own:

  • Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
  • Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
  • Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
  • Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?

The sad truth is that even if you’re the best leader ever, completely open to new ideas and ready to implement them, chances are your employees have some scar tissue that makes them default to “safe silence.”

If you want to free their best ideas from the prison of safety, you need to address these concerns.

One of the best ways to create safety and draw out your team’s best ideas is to ask courageous questions.

Courageous Questions

A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways.

First, a courageous question focuses on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome.

For example, rather than ask “How can we improve?” ask “What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?”

Next, a courageous question creates powerful vulnerability.

When you ask for specific examples of how you can improve your leadership, you are implicitly saying “I know things aren’t perfect. I know I can improve.”

This is a strong message–if you sincerely mean it. You send the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback.

When you say “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.

Finally, courageous questions require the asker to listen without defensiveness.

This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren’t prepared to hear feedback that made them uncomfortable.

Don't ask questions you don't want answers for - asking for feedback and ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.

When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspective. With many courageous questions, you’ll get conflicting views. That’s okay. It’s healthy. Let the team know how you (or they) will decide what to do next based on all the ideas.

Here are a few more courageous questions to get you started and unlock your team’s best ideas:

  • What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
  • Which of our products (or policies) do you find most difficult to explain to our customers?
  • What do we do that really annoys our customers?
  • What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
  • What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
  • What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
  • What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
  • What are you most afraid of with this program/project /process?
  • What is the biggest source of conflict you're having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
  • What's sabotaging our success?

Once you've tried asking a few questions and having genuine dialogue around the answers, it can also work well to give each team member an index card and ask them to come up with their own courageous questions for the group.

Then start each staff meeting or huddle with one or two.

Your Turn

When you use courageous questions and allow people to share feedback without defensiveness, you’ll draw out their truly great ideas?