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Little Ideas Can Add Up to Big Wins

Organizations always face pressure to outperform their previous successes. This is true for corporations, public entities, nonprofits, and organizations of every size and type. That pressure has intensified in recent years as we deal with new workforce expectations, the definition of “workplace” and economic volatility. 

This pressure to perform amid uncertainty makes it tempting to seek immediate ROI or “big wins.” A new marketing campaign that goes viral. A fantastic new product that takes the world by storm. A story in the Wall Street Journal.

This causes many organizations to focus only on big ideas and immediate wins and to believe that meaningful creativity only comes from specific groups such as marketing. Such a narrow focus, however, can stifle the creativity that exists within every part of the workforce and the potential of small ideas to grow into game-changers over time.

One company that understands this is White Castle, which is legendary for its willingness to take calculated risks in the service of a better customer experience. It also is notable for empowering employees to bring their ideas to top management.

Risk of failure is not usually a barrier, White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson recently told us. More than 20 years ago, two employees — one in the corporate accounting department and the other in the company’s Chicago warehouse — made identical suggestions. Their idea was to market sliders in a pizza box. 

“That’s because people eat sliders like pizza,” Richardson explained. “And when you put 30 sliders in a pizza box, it also happens to be the same number we put on the grill, so it sounded good operationally.”

The company found several stores willing to test the concept. However, about three hours into the test, “the phone started ringing off the hook,” Richardson said. “There was one small problem. The pizza box didn’t fit through the drive-through windows.”

Some companies would have deemed the experiment a failure and moved on. Not White Castle. 

“From that was born, we believe, the greatest package in the history of fast food, the ‘Crave Case,’ which not only holds 30 sliders but has the best corrugated cardboard handle in all of fast food with faux leather-stitched handles,” Richardson said. 

Other employee-generated ideas that have become institutionalized include White Castle’s slider-based Thanksgiving stuffing and its Valentine’s Day celebrations featuring dinner reservations and table service.

All are examples of what can happen when we unleash the creative power of an entire organization. Few of White Castle’s employee-generated ideas are transformative in themselves, but together they have raised the company’s profile, made the brand fun and brought customers through the doors.

We’ll be the first to acknowledge that a small group working on “big ideas” will certainly hit one out of the park now and then. But when a full team is empowered to bring their creative ideas forward … when we recognize that risk has rewards … and when we view experiments as opportunities to learn … the game changes completely.

Sandra Harbrecht Ratchford
President and CEO