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Engaging Employees In Creative Cost Cutting Inspired by Project Runway

Project RunwayYou can’t work in this economic climate and not feel the unrelenting pressure to increase your value proposition by decreasing costs while improving service delivery and quality. If leaders wait for the budget axe to fall, they may be forced to make ill-advised decisions in order to cut costs quickly, leaving a lot of carnage in their wake. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With some foresight, creativity and a willingness to engage your team members, you can turn difficult situations into an empowering exercise that allows you to meet your goals AND get your team excited about implementing the changes.

Fortunately, there seem to be no limits to what the human brain can create. One piece of evidence: a fashion designer competing on the popular show, Project Runway, made the most beautiful couture dress out of birdseed. Yes, birdseed!

I recently worked with an IT department that faced the need to cut their costs by 10% over the ensuing two years even while the number and complexity of projects they needed to complete continued to grow. They could have done what many other leaders would do – take a surface look at their budgets, target the biggest line item, and lay off a chunk of their workforce. Fortunately, they realized this approach would cause serious harm to those who would lose their jobs, demoralize those who didn’t, and make it nearly impossible to deliver the quantity and quality of work required.

Inspired by that dress made out of birdseed, this leadership team set off to take a more constructive approach and asked the people who really know how the work is done how to do it more efficient and effectively. We mixed frontline IT staff with managers on several design teams that would compete to find novel, more efficient ways of delivering their products and services. We even gave the teams mentors to guide them, a la Project Runway’s Tim Gunn.

The results? The teams were empowered to eliminate all kinds of redundancies and inefficiencies. They were empowered to propose solutions that made their work more efficient and pleasant. The best ideas were selected and a full 100% of the people who participated in the work re-design volunteered to work on the implementation teams.

What could have been a demoralizing, depressing and damaging task actually energized this IT group. They were finally empowered to come up with solutions using their experience on the front lines and were invited to collaborate with the “suits” to figure out how to get the job done.

You can energize an overstretched work force to take on tough challenges by showing people how essential their work is to the organization’s mission, giving them a structured opportunity to contribute, and committing to implementing their best ideas. And don’t underestimate the value of giving people the opportunity to develop initiatives that improve their quality of work life and to address problems that have been vexing them for years.

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