Are rank-and-file employees smarter than their bosses?
A story in this morning's Wall Street Journal details Best Buy's
Three years ago, an executive asked hundreds of employees to predict the number of Best Buy gift cards the company would sell in a single month. The average employee's pick wound up being closer to the actual number than the internally projected figure.
Best Buy has since gone on to set up a more formal predictions market called TagTrade, where employees are encouraged to make their projections on everything from hot product trends to the success of new services.
The article also details similar employee-level forecasts used by Google
It's a neat approach, but the more startling implication is that executives aren't any smarter -- in fact, probably less smart, in a "street smarts" sense -- than their underlings. This naturally may lead shareholders to wonder why they're paying their executives so well, and padding their contracts with chunky stock options as retention tools, when the average Joes and Janes have more clarity than the MBA-bearing pros.
Hands off the hands-on approach
When his company was still getting started, Wal-Mart
Companies have gotten away from that approach, now that software provides real-time inventory updates. But while new tech has armed companies with the tools to measure what is selling now, it can't accurately predict what will sell in the future. That's where retail employees can outsmart the company's executive buyers, since they're constantly in direct contact with customers.
One of my favorite investments is regional amusement park operator Cedar Fair
In defense of the boardroom
Naturally, you don't want to flip a company's ranks upside-down. That would be anarchy. The best of both worlds involves tapping the street-smarts of the hungry front line with executives humble enough to trust the crowd's instincts over their own.
That's easier said than done, of course. In the real world, suggestion boxes can collect cobwebs. Few companies may follow Best Buy's lead into tapping the collective genius of their hires.
In fact, Best Buy's biggest competitor may have gone the other way last year. Remember when Circuit City
How did that work out for Circuit City? Not well at all, judging by the current stock price. Cutting costs may have made sense to the beancounters, but thousands of Circuit City's most knowledgeable sales people got shown the door.
"It's not just that you're letting go what may be some of your productive associates," I wrote at the time. "What kind of message does this send to your remaining hires? Don't overachieve. Lay low. Do just enough to stay with the pack."
The layoffs may have been a morale-deflating move in retrospect. But now, having learned about Best Buy's employee-empowering initiatives, I realize that Circuit City also did itself in by sending away the brain trust it needed most.
Best Buy execs are smarter because they lean on their smarter hires. That's not incompetence at the top -- it's competent humility. Send in the crowds.