There is a brainstorming exercise described in a latter chapter of the book, Blue Ocean Strategy (by Kim and Mauborgne, Harvard Business School Press, 2005) that I've been able to use to very good effect in almost all of the strategic planning engagements that I've been privileged to facilitate in recent years. Simply put, that model asks the planning process participants to challenge the status quo and quite possibly the current direction of the organization by considering those things which might be eliminated, reduced, increased and started. The great logic to be found in an honest assessment that considers all four is that those which are eliminated and / or reduced release resources (time, money, effort) and all such resources so freed can then be applied to more productive ends in the form of things that can be increased and / or started.
In the top-down perspective that is inherent in strategic planning, the eliminate, reduce, increase and start possibilities that get bandied about tend to be big picture items – whole product lines, divisions, offices, locations, markets, systems, capital needs and sources, delivery channels and the like. Hopefully, any initiatives that make their way from idea to plan, plan to action, and action to result create the sort of unique and fundamental changes that drive the organization to a higher level of sustained performance. And in the very best of cases they move the organization from an ocean that runs "red" with the figurative blood of the competition to use the language of Kim and Mauborgne to one that is still quite "blue" or completely untainted by such bloody fighting . It is in that regard the quest for not just change but innovation of the sort that enables an enterprise to differentiate itself from the crowd – even if that difference lasts only for a short while before the copycats make their way there too.
Anyway, having made repeated use of that model in the course of my strategic planning work I've often noted that some retreat participants cannot help but fixate on tactical rather than strategic issues regardless of the setting or charge they are given. I don't think that's all bad; but the more I thought about that tendency to spend time in the weeds and its possible benefits, the more I began to wonder if the eliminate, reduce, increase and start model couldn't be used as a tactical tool too – one that rather than being top-down was bottom-up. In essence, my thought was to engage staff at every level and in every part of an organization as a means of improving operating results. Do that well and not only do you add to the bottom line, but you create ownership in the solutions by virtue of the fact that the ideas originated with the staff rather than with management or some outside consultant. And thus it was that the EMBoS Protocol (TM) was born in September, 2008.
Initially I referred to it as "Employee Brainstorming on Steroids." However, that soon morphed into the EMBoS acronym (Eliminate, Minimize, Build on and Start) because it affords the model a memorable name; because I liked the symbolism (metaphor) that it suggests; and lastly due to one of the primary definitions of the word emboss ("to raise the surface of in relief").
Fundamentally, the goal of the EMBoS Protocol (TM) is to find new and additional opportunities for both tangible and intangible performance improvement. The means to that end is through the individual spirit, inventiveness and collective wisdom of an organization's staff. After all, no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Moreover, as I've stated on more than one occasion in my writings and talks the staff is far closer to the work and the customer on a daily basis than is leadership and management in most organizations.
The biggest challenges (the things that often get in the way) to hearing those ideas are: 1. The need to overcome the pride of ownership and authorship that inevitably exists regarding the current systems, policies and procedures for those with a vested interest or positional authority; and 2. The effort and setting that is required to supplant the fear that the staff might have in challenging the current way of doing things. To accomplish the latter you either need an environment where trust is very high or you must arrange a setting where the staff can speak candidly without fear of having their ideas and suggestions come back to haunt them in any way. To accomplish the former you must ask leadership to set aside their pride (ego) and notions of how things are to be done.
All that said the bottom line is this: in the current climate every organization and every leader needs to find the means to enlist and engage the entire staff in some productive brainstorming and problem solving as a means of improving efficiency, operating performance and bottom line results . Give your people voice, vote and a fair hearing (value them) and you may be quite surprised at the value they are able and determined to deliver to your organization's performance.