Years ago, a professor challenged me with an assignment that changed my life. The assignment was to find a park bench to sit on for one hour and to record in writing every sound that I heard. From birds chirping, to leaves rustling, to the distant rumble of traffic; I was surprised by the richness of sound around me that I had been taking for granted. To this day, I still find moments to pause in my day and to be aware of the sights and sounds around me.
How well do you listen? In a world increasingly dominated by text and email we are losing our ability to hear the subtlety in spoken word. Have you ever sent a message that was misinterpreted because it lacked proper inflection of voice? I think we take for granted the meaning and nuance available to us in the beauty of human voices and language -- its pitch, its tone, its beautiful nuance. While we often make the point about having two ears and one mouth (i.e. that we should listen twice as much as we speak), how many of us make the effort to listen with focus to those around us?
For years, I have made use of intentional, strategic listening tours within organizations. What is a listening tour? In my definition, it is a series of 60-90 minute focus groups on strategy with the CEO and small groups of staff within an organization. Ideally, everyone participates and colleagues are randomly assigned to groups so the process helps not only with strategic discovery, but also in building cross-divisional understanding and respect.
In one context, I conducted 36 of these listening tours within one organization. Surprisingly, the last of these sessions was as relevant as the first, abundant in new insights, fresh perspective and actionable recommendations.
Listening tours depend on a spirit of co-design within an organization. Much like innovation, co-design has become a widely used but seldom understood concept. In many ways, co-design is connected to the critical reaction to limitations created when the "smartest person in the room" has exclusive decision making and problem solving responsibility. As a way of opening up the decision making process and of bringing more ideas to the table, co-design should be used to ensure a collaborative design process bringing together several view points or perspectives.
The questions one must face when considering co-design for an organization are how best to design the process, how wide of a scope to allow participants, and who should have a voice in the process. My bias is to favour a vastly open process and full-inclusion as this creates the best conditions for profound insight and dynamic engagement.
In my experience with listening tours, I can tell you that they have been essential approaches to creating compelling and engaging strategy. The end results of an open, inclusive strategic listening tour are better and more diverse with ideas, empowered and engaged employees, and heightened performance. None of us can predict where the next great idea will come from. If you are not honouring the voices and perspectives of your colleagues or staff, you are likely to miss it. Take time to listen.
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