What Goes On in a Co-Op’s Suggestion Box?


Have you ever seen the cartoon where an employee puts a note into a suggestion box, only to see shredded paper coming out the other end? If you’ve submitted an idea this way, you can empathize. If it’s your job to review ideas in your company’s suggestion box, you’re probably cringing.

Now, maybe your business doesn’t have an actual suggestion box. Maybe you use something more technical, like online forms and idea management systems, or maybe something more visual like an idea board (for the time being, we’re going to refer to all of these as a “suggestion box”). But whatever system you use, let’s face it, sometimes a suggestion box is just feel-good psychology, “We care about what you think! Your ideas are important to us!” (Please remain on hold for the next available representative…)

But is a suggestion box different when you’re an owner? And since you are an owner, what role do you play in deciding what ideas make it to the factory floor?

In cooperatives like credit unions and CUSOs where our clients are also our owners, the notion of a suggestion box takes on a different meaning. It means something more to the people who are making suggestions. It means more to the client-owners who are working together to manage cooperative resources, investment, and strategic direction, for the good of the entire co-op. And it means more to the professionals who are tasked with turning client-owner needs and goals into real products and services.

What a suggestion box means to a cooperative’s clients

You have an idea for something you want your cooperative to do. Maybe it’s something you think will help you grow your business, save you time, or allow you to do something new. It might be tempting to dash off a few thoughts, toss them into a suggestion box, and hope somebody will pick the idea up and run with it. But if the idea will require time, money, and resources to accomplish, it deserves something more.

Your idea will have a better chance of becoming reality if you take the time to think it through and imagine its impact on the co-op and your fellow owner-clients. How might they see this idea? Will it translate well to other environments that might be different than yours? Are there ways your vision could be made more flexible to fit other needs and points of view?

Since the co-op will need to spend your and your colleagues’ money developing your vision, you’ll need to make your case about why it deserves that investment.

What a suggestion box means to a cooperative’s owners

Time to put on your owner hat. As suggestions come in, what is your role in deciding if they warrant serious consideration? Do you even have a role?

As owners, your most important role is to join in the dialogue. Participate in the debate about feasibility and the techniques needed to turn the idea into something real. Add your voice to make sure the result will be something that has broad appeal to different points of view, or be the one who points out the downsides that others might be ignoring. No matter what the end result is – a go, a no-go, or a maybe-someday – everyone benefits when everyone participates.

If nothing else, by taking part in the conversation you get a unique insider’s peek into the process. Hopefully you’ll gain an appreciation of what it takes to turn that notion you had in the shower this morning into something real that you and your fellow client-owners can use.

What a suggestion box means to the cooperative

For a cooperative whose mission is to build things that its owners want, need, and will use, a suggestion box offers a window into what those wants and needs might be. Sure, owners will also find other ways to let you know, but there’s something about the informal nature of a suggestion box that makes people a little braver. Even if the suggestion isn’t being made anonymously, it’s like the box gives them permission to go out on a limb.

Even more valuable than the ideas themselves are the conversations they inspire. It’s often the input of other perspectives that turns a germ of an idea into something everyone can appreciate and get excited about. The side benefit is that no matter the outcome for that particular idea, the result is a more informed, better connected group of cooperative participants who are even more likely to engage when the next idea comes along.

How our cooperative gets owner-clients involved

At our cooperative, we have an online idea form that our clients use to pass along their suggestions, using a convenient link right in the core software. Ideas can be submitted by anyone, from a front-line teller who has a thought about how to serve members better to a CEO who has an idea about a new product they want to develop.

Forms are directed to our decision-makers, including our CEO, as well as a group of “Idea Form Collaborators” which includes everyone from our internal teams and network partners to credit union professionals who want to participate in the discussions.

That’s where the fun begins. We love a lively debate here, and as people engage, it can be exciting to watch an idea incubate – or wither and die. Yes, many ideas do end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but we do our best to give them an honest hearing and to explain how they do or don’t fit with the overall goals and priorities of the cooperative and its stakeholders.

If my ideas are so important, why would the answer ever be no?

The professionals who run the co-op’s day-to-day activities have a real challenge. They have a responsibility to ensure every client-owner’s voice is heard. But they have an equally important responsibility to spend the cooperative’s resources wisely. No matter how good a suggestion is, it won’t help anyone if it bankrupts the organization.

Not only that, but there are some ideas that just don’t make sense to a cooperative’s overall strategic direction. A company that sells premixed concrete has to think twice if someone suggests they get into the business of baking breakfast croissants, no matter how hungry their customers are.

What does it take to translate an idea into something real? In the software business, it’s been said that the most expensive part of any project is the spec: figuring out the nitty gritty of how something is going to be accomplished, what it will look like, and how the end result will work in the hands of end-users. It’s the same in most businesses, since the design can have such a huge impact on the end product.

In a cooperative whose products and services are intended to benefit all participants, the design process is complicated by multiple opinions and perspectives. The trick is to see that as a good thing, not a hindrance. More points of view can certainly translate to a better end product, provided everyone involved in the design understands that the benefits of doing things together makes the inevitable compromises worthwhile.

We have a saying at my cooperative: it’s only no until it’s yes. A no right now might be necessary so we can focus our resources on the right things for today. But a no doesn’t necessarily mean no forever. A stakeholder might have to be persistent, making their case more than once, gathering support, adjusting the scope, honing the message. Yes, that takes a lot of time and effort, but if it’s not worth doing that work, then perhaps the project isn’t worth doing at all.

The point of a suggestion box…to YOU

It would be easy to think, “Why bother? I’m probably only going to get a no anyway,” but no one knows where the next big idea will come from that changes everything. Maybe it will be yours!


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