Kill the suggestion box – there’s a much better way

Almost every company talks about empowering their employees, but few actually do it an any meaningful way. In many cases it becomes a sham process, where employees are encouraged to voice their opinions and those opinions are then promptly ignored.

And the best (or is that worst) symbol of fake empowerment is the suggestion box. Many workplaces have one hanging on a wall somewhere. You can stick in your idea, but then what? Who (if anyone) will read it? Will it ever be acted upon? If not, why not? If it is, who will take credit?

It’s time to kill off the suggestions box and the coolest way I’ve seen to do this comes from marketing agency Quirk based in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the UK.

They have created a process that let’s anyone in the company suggest ideas, gather support for them and then have them implemented (or not). When I visited their Cape Town HQ I had a chance to see it for myself, and I think every workplace who wants to give their employees a voice should do something similar.

This flowchart shows how it works:
Flow Chart

The first step is to post your idea to a board that hangs in a prominent spot in the office and get 12 of your coworkers to also sign on. If you like an idea, you show your support in a very low-tech way: you put a sticker on it.

Overall Board

Some ideas die at this stage – there’s just not enough energy or support behind the proposal. All ideas that don’t make it for one reason or another are displayed in The Graveyard:

Grave Yard

Here you can see each idea that failed and why.

If an idea does get the necessary support, the person behind it writes a one-page proposal which is then submitted to Quirk’s EXCO, which is basically their top leadership team.

If they approve it, the idea goes ahead immediately and is placed on the “Ideas in motion” section of the board:

Ideas In Motion

Ideas that were previously approved are shown on the “It’s happening” section.

It's Happening!

Of course, the leadership group can turn the idea down, and if they do, they must carefully explain why they don’t think it’s a good idea. They can’t just say “No” or “Maybe later.”

But as you can see from the flow chart above, even if the leadership group turns an idea down, that need not be the end of it. If a person feels that this idea is still to good to ignore, it can be put to a debate and subsequent vote inside the company. If the idea is voted through, this overrides the EXCO’s decision and the idea goes ahead anyway.

Another thing they do on the board is highlight the costs of previous ideas, so employees know how much things end up costing.

Parking Lot

I think this process is absolutely brilliant for 5 reasons:

1: It’s visual
It’s not just a bunch of documents or lines in a spreadsheet – this is highly visual which gives you a great overview. It’s also well-designed and looks pretty, which probably helps a little too.

2: It’s low-tech
This could also be done on the intranet or in an app, but I kinda like that it’s on paper and cork board and you vote with stickers. This also makes it very flexible. Also, a page or an app is on demand – that means that people need to be proactive to access their democracy (and apathy is a killer). This board is a sort of dynamic wallpaper – it sits in front of your eyes while you butter your toast in the kitchen – you can be as passive as you like – the democracy comes to you.

3: It’s fast
The process is fast. The leadership group have committed to addressing each idea at their next meeting and this means that ideas can get acted on while the energy is still there.

4: It has memory
The board is a great record of previous failed ideas (so you don’t have to deal with the same proposals once every 6 months from different people and it also highlights ideas that were implemented, so you can see that this actually works.

5: It’s transparent
This takes most of the politics out of these ideas. Getting your idea implemented is not about who you know or how well you can lobby for it, it’s about gaining support for good suggestions.

There is zero doubt that autonomy and control over our own situation makes us happy. The more we can meaningfully contribute to things we care about at work, the prouder and happier we feel. And that way the company can also better tap into the creativity of its employees and become more efficient.

So simply put:

Fake empowerment = frustration and cynicism.

Real empowerment = trust and happiness.

Your take

Does your workplace empower its employees? For real or in a fake way? If you have a really good idea, do you know where to go with it?

Related posts

Photo credits: The awesome picture above of the suggestion box is from a train station in Moshi, Tanzania and was originally shown here. All other photos are courtesy of Quirk.

27 thoughts on “Kill the suggestion box – there’s a much better way”

  1. Awesome idea. I love it for all the same reasons you give – especially the powerful simplicity. To build on this idea, two tweaks I would consider:

    Firstly I’d consider making the final decision using consent rather than a simple vote. For example, if a narrow majority were in favour of a proposal that the rest were bitterly opposed to and possibly couldn’t live with then a simple vote isn’t always a good way to make the decision. It might be better to seek consent first, then work through any ‘show stopper’ concerns and seek alternative proposals.

    Secondly, looking at the list of proposals, they seem to all be quite small things rather than more radical change. What if someone went larger, for example proposing that the company cut the salaries of the Exco by 50% for 6 months and put all the money saved into a fund to start some new project which the Exco don’t approve of. Or even more extreme – what if there was a proposal to sell a portion of the company? Perhaps the Exco trust their employees to ‘do the right thing’ – but of course that’s subjective. My guess is there probably are constraints of some sort, but perhaps they haven’t been made explicit. It could be damaging if the system is tested one day and the Exco has to over-rule something. However, for an employee-owned company it could work fine since they have the ultimate say anyhow.

    All that said, it’s a very inspiring example of workplace democracy so good luck to them! :)

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  3. Looks great for a small company; we have something similar in a larger company but it doesn’t work quite so well – people are distributed, so a physical board is no good.

    There a far too many ideas (thousands) for the EXCO to review, and implementing some of them is slow and difficult, so there’s much less visibility. It’s easy to get duplicates when there are thousands of existing suggestions, so managing them is difficult.

    Displaying the costs is an interesting twist though – most companies would only want to trumpet the savings or improvements!

  4. All suggestion boxes are gimmicks. The basic idea that someone “comes up with” an idea that someone ELSE then peruses before pronouncing a verdict is daft. Who would know if an idea works unless it is tried out? Nobody. Why would 12 supporters know either? They wouldn’t. Nobody does!
    Instead of a suggestion box DITCH THE IDEA OF SUGGESTIONS. Bring in experiments. Give people the responsibility and capability to experiment with an idea. Then they bring the results to someone with the power to make it an experiment on a larger scale.
    No voting based on power and popularity.

  5. This is essentially the same thing you can do with Corpell Anonymous Box ( It lets you leave an anonymous idea, and then people can vote and anonymously discuss it. The voting box has safeguards to prevent ballot stuffing, and the box owner cannot change votes.

  6. I like the idea but it seems it would only work in departments of 25+. I work for a small company of 25 total employees. I use to work for big corp for 30 years. Your idea would work in departments only and probably less than 100 per dept. Your topic is “Ideas” and that’s all nice and positive. What about feedback .. how best to get that from employees? That feedback could be negative or a person is asking for some new benefit that may not go over well with management. Some ideas need to be anonymous. That puts me back to a suggestion box or what we use to call “Let me Know” program. IDEAS?

  7. This is a neat idea.

    I’m curious to know how quickly it gained traction and what if anything was done to help promote it.

    I am also curious to know if it’s still going after a couple of years or if it has fizzled out?

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