The Capacity to Listen

Understand how organizations can build the capacity to listen by developing systems that have the ability to receive new information, consider the signals and prioritize the actions.

Michael Hartley is the Managing Director of IK Mining & Energy. Michael's 20+ year career as a risk and performance professional has spanned 6 continents, multiple complex sectors (e.g. mining, oil & gas, construction and manufacturing) and various organization levels (operations to executive/board level). It is his mission to make risk and performance information accessible and useful for internal decision makers as well as external stakeholders.

A part of the school drop-off ritual I have with my daughter is to ask her what she needs to do in her classroom. The answer: serious listening to learn. From a young age we are told that listening is extremely important. As we move beyond the classroom and into the professional world, we attempt to hone this skill as a tool of understanding, empathy and advantage.  We respect those who listen to us and those who are actively seeking to better understand what we are trying to convey. Many can think of ‘that boss’ we had in our careers. It’s either the one that didn’t listen at all or made listening look effortless. In large complex organizations, individuals are implored to be better listeners, but how can these same organizations become better listeners themselves?

After major events, leaders will typically say that they are working hard to listen to those affected.  They see this as the first step in understanding what went wrong and how they might be able to ‘fix’ the problem in the future. Much like my daughter attending class, they know they need ‘serious listening to learn’. Listening to those not often consulted can be challenging – particularly after a major negative event. When leaders go on ‘listening tours’ of their operations they are rightly attempting to gather information that the conventional channels within the organization do not make them privy to. As organizations attempt to scale this essential capacity, it is important to understand what it takes for an organization to listen – not just at the time of crisis but rather as part of its steady state operations. Listening isn’t an individual capability as much as it is an organizational capacity. The capacity to listen requires that organizations be able to do the following: receive new information, consider the signals and prioritize the actions.

Receive New Information

Many organizations will be awash with data. It’s a constant refrain from leaders that they are ‘data rich and insight poor’. Studies back these claims. In one offshore analysis, McKinsey looked at the volume of data that were being captured vs the amount that was being used to support day-to-day decision-making. The findings were stark – less than 0.25% of all data captured were used to support daily decisions. This case study illustrates the challenges of receiving new information that has been analyzed against some form of performance criteria. To support the needs of the decision-maker, the information must be relevant, timely and context-rich.  If these characteristics are not met, then the new information quickly becomes noise.

Therefore, organizations need to be able to scale the measurement and communication of risk and performance information. The compartmentalization (and contextualization) of this information is key to better serving decision-makers. The ability to receive information is a systems challenge. It requires the understanding of what data are required, the analysis of these data and making the information accessible and useful to decision-makers.

Consider the Signals

Supporting decision-making environments means understanding the needs of consumers of performance information. This requires the ability for decision-makers to ‘step back’ and review the incoming information against their needs for the decision at hand. The ability to determine the applicability of the incoming performance information will help decision-makers not become overwhelmed. Empathy for not just what information is presented to people but also how information is presented is where many systems fail consumers of the information they provide.

In tightly-coupled systems this is known as being able to detect weak signals. The classic story of these weak signals being received but not adequately considered comes from the 1986 Challenger disaster and the famed O-ring failure. Without treading on Diane Vaughan’s seminal work around normalization of deviance, the detection of weak signals is paramount to managing change within operations and responding before (rather than reacting after) the effect of these changes are understood.

Prioritize the Actions

The ability to prioritize information based on organization need and determine what actions to take is the final challenge of organizational information systems. ‘Busy work’ is the scourge of many managers around the world. This is the phenomenon of people working hard on tasks that offer little value to organizations. A common defense of a manager’s team is that they are ‘hard working’ and ‘very busy’. The evidence for this is vast. People in organizations around the world are ‘busy’ developing reports, conducting inspections and preparing presentations that consume our only truly non-renewable resource: time. These activities destroy value (not to mention morale) but they are familiar – ‘it’s the way we’ve always done things around here’ – so they are difficult to usurp.

An excellent example of systems not being able to link information to prioritized actions comes from Stephen Berlin Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. In this book he examines the information that was being made available to multiple agencies across the US government in the run up to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  The difficulty in deciphering what is useful information is laid bare in his book. There is no question that people in the different agencies were working long hours. They knew of the threat but could not connect the dots to determine the actions of the highest value.

Capacity Over Capability

Building the capacity to listen across an organization is a systematic challenge that can be highly contextual. Information systems need to focus on the consumer of the information as well as the users of the system itself (and not just meet the needs of the buyer). Integrating the ability to receive new information, consider the signals and prioritize the actions will help scale this invaluable capacity. Seeing listening as an individual capability and treating it as something that can be trained won’t move the needle. Participants in such training sessions who hear the refrain ‘serious listening to learn’ could be forgiven for thinking it is an elementary reminder particularly if the systems they operate don’t support them.

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