“Are there any questions?” — The CEO
What happens after she or he says those words? In most organizations, a few hands go up and a few vanilla questions are tossed out. But if your organization is full of smart, ambitious, thoughtful, hard-working people like you hope it is, there’s a lot under the surface that isn’t getting said out loud at an all hands. If they are spoken at all, the true worries, concerns, questions are talked about in private 1:1s between peers and only sometimes do those questions make it back to the leadership team via the scenic route through two or three other people.
And what about the questions that never get asked? Start again with the premise that you hired smart, ambitious, thoughtful, hard-working people. These people observe all sorts of details about the business, the product, the team, the customers. Naturally, they form thoughts from the observations. Thoughts are the natural product of excellent human brains. Whether the thoughts are positive or negative, helpful or harmful, they are in your team members’ heads, impacting people’s work.
Wouldn’t you like to know what’s inside your colleagues’ heads? Wouldn’t you like to build the shortest path between your colleagues’ brains and your ears?
The best way to know what’s in there and know it fast is to establish an anonymous question asking and answering service inside your company. Mine was called the Orange Box (I ran part of eBay.com back in the day). It was a cardboard box. It was wrapped in orange crepe paper. There was a hole in the top of it. People stuffed all kinds of questions into it. I took each question and read them verbatim at our all hands on Fridays and answered them. Sometimes I sent emails but the questions were always verbatim (only a few in six years were rude or had swear words). Since eBay was full of human beings, not robots, who behaved like human beings I described above, there was a lot in their heads. The Orange Box helped me see their thoughts and speak to them faster than any other mechanism. Instituting anonymous Q&A helps build a workplace where leaders mean it when they ask for questions, and where leaders are expected to answer colleagues honestly and publicly.
The Orange Box process was:
100% anonymous. The typical approach to Q&A — an invitation to questions at the end of an all-hands — is designed for only a tiny minority of users: smart, ambitious, thoughtful, hard-working people who also want to speak out publicly and who also can do it in a way that is clear and compelling without making peers or leadership cringe. Anonymity increases the reach of your Q&A process by designing it for the broadest possible market.
Honest. Telling the truth requires disclosing some facts that make you uncomfortable (e.g. details about the business performance, challenges facing the management team). Telling the truth includes explaining why you don’t feel comfortable sharing a particular fact and, instead, giving general context for how you think about an issue or a problem without breaking confidences (e.g. personal life details, compensation, performance, confidential deal terms). Your colleagues are entitled to more information than your competitors or the public.
Hygienic. Think of this like brush teeth, wash face, comb hair of management. Or think of it like colon cleanse. Either way, it works.
I didn’t invent anonymous Q&A process. I am sure there are many variations of this process. (Please post them!) I just believe in it totally for all teams at any size or stage of life and I find they are too rare in the wild. I’ve seen some people use online tools like Google Moderator with great success. Others prefer old fashioned paper and ink. Whatever you choose, choose something. Don’t let your all hands meetings become scripted theater. Capitalism is crippled when creative, honest, innovative leaders treat their colleagues like a captive audience. They are neither captive, nor audience.
Here is a video of two small children trying to do martial arts on each other.