Innovation/Global Risk

Good Listening: 3 Ways to Improve The Key to Innovation

By Shlomo Maital



One of the most amazing human organs is the ear.  Its combination of ear drum, tiny hairs, auditory nerves and of course the brain to interpret the signals it receives, are taken for granted, yet the complex system that enables us to hear is insufficiently valued – except when it breaks down. 

   We are equipped to hear.  But — do we really listen? Writing in the latest issue of McKinsey Quarterly, former McKinsey consultant Bernard T. Ferrari (now an independent consultant) notes that senior executives often are very poor listeners.  They become preoccupied with speaking, what they are going to say, and do not truly listen to those around them. And as a result, they lose invaluable information, that could help them strategize and innovate.  In a debate, they often formulate their own ‘speeches’ rather than listen to what those around them are saying. 

   Here are three things we can do, according to Ferrari, if we want to become ‘Ferrari’ quality listeners, instead of  Yugo listeners where only the “outgoing” button works. 

   1.  Show respect.   If you respect your workers and subordinates, they will respect you, and often do-or-die for you.  How do you show respect? By eliciting their opinions, sincerely, and really truly listening to them.  Often the solutions to sticky problems lie far down the organization, at the “coal face”.  But these solutions never reach the decision-makers..because they never bother to go to the ‘coal face’ or listen to the ‘miners’ when they do. 

  2.  Keep quiet.  Here is another of those 80/20 rule.  Listen 80% of the time.  Speak no more than 20% of the time.  And when you speak,  do it by formulating good questions, rather than deliver proclamations. 

  3.  Challenge assumptions.  “Good listeners seek to understand – and to challenge – the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.”   Ferrari uses legendary baseball manager Earl Weaver (Baltimore Orioles) as an example. Weaver’s autobiography is titled “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts”.  To do this, to learn after you know it all, requires you to challenge the assumptions of those to whom you listen, but above all, to challenge your own sacred-cow assumptions as well. 

    I would add a fourth idea.  4. Don’t fill in pauses.  When there is a pause in the conversation, don’t be embarrassed and rush to fill it in with idle conversation.  Let the silence live.  Let your conversant speak.  You may end up finding out what people should have told you, but forgot or didn’t have the space in which to say it.  And by the way – ask them!  Ask people if there is anything you should know they haven’t yet told you.  That communicates the message, that you expect people to give you all the information you need, without gaps. 

* McKinsey Quarterly. “The executive’s guide to better learning”.  B. T. Ferrari.  Feb 2012.