Friday, April 21, 2006

Learning to Listen through Technology

Learning as Conversation

So we've gone through a few disciplines that together can be used for sustainable innovation and creative thinking in business. Learning, innovation, and marketing all find their best model in conversation. Everything's connected -- so how can you maximize your ability to listen and be heard?

Speaking of Listening

Nancy White makes an excellent point: in a business world where email is the norm, where websites are a competitive necessity, where IM is used by almost everyone, why is there no training in electronic communication? After all, poor use of these tools is creating a steep rise in the number of people who lose their jobs, the budgets squandered through poor use, and the money left on the table.

Not Just For Geeks

Anyone can use online communication tools. The logistics might intimidate, but they're easier to use than they first appear.

The real challenge is conceptual, not technical: to understand the unique value proposition of each and how they can be used together or separately to achieve a paticular goal. In fact, newcomers often bring key perspectives to original business models that insiders sorely lack.

What Non-Geeks Bring to the Table

Training can mitigate technical understanding, but the rest requires old fashioned trial and error. Different communication challenges require customized approaches and the ability to listen both intellectually and emotionally.

This might sound like a woo woo technique, but HR departments spend billions teaching just this very simple tenet, albeit off-line:

Everyone is slightly different. They listen differently, interpret differently, bring their own working styles to the table.

Remembering that -- and figuring out how to connect or hear employees with different styles -- is generally accepted as a management necessity.

Working Groups: Strategies for Differences in Temperment and Skill Levels

Nancy White has a great deal of experience mitigating challenges with groups comrpised of unlike minds (and what group isn't?).

An example: those who type quickly are usually more comfortable with IM than those who don't. Slow typers often (literally) can't get a word in edgewise -- among the chatters whose fingers fly across the keyboard.

To combat this, every project -- or company -- requires a protocol. An elipses is one solution she found. Those who type slowly can put one (. . . ) after a few words to demonstrate more is coming. This does two things:

1. It signals to others that they need to listen further. It slows down the discussion so that the rest of the group can forget what THEY have to say in an effort to find out what a colleague is saying next.
2. It also allows time for the slow typer to finish a sentence.

Another Example

White found is the intimidation factor technology often presents.

Once in a training session, a trainee expressed frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed by learning the tool. Nancy suggested that he pull up a website that played harp music -- and then that everyone in the group bring up the same site.

White reports that the rhythm and quality of the interaction among the group changed completely once they were all listening to the same music. Not only did it soothe the group but it gave them something visceral in common.

From that point, White has asked each member of remote groups to present a favorite piece of music. It imbues a surprising kind of intimacy in a working group that might not otherwise meet.

More on listening and how we hear online in the next post.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Road to Innovation is Paved with Unlikely Connections

Playing Well With Others: People and Ideas

Before directly addressing the problem of working together from the last post, it's useful to articulate clearly goals and strategy.

In three years of interviews of CEOs, VPs, educators, and people from a variety of other professions, everyone agrees that effective thinking can be defined by its results: the ability to create new connections among resources (or potential resources) to solve problems over time.

How To Approach This?

Luckily, everything is connected. The trick is finding out how. That's how innovation works.

We're hard-wired to make connections and recognize patterns automatically. If we are given half an image, our mind creates the other half. If we're given an incident, we often create a back story. By adulthood, we more often draw conclusions often in terms of the odds rather than investigation.

What if we went back to being curious? And listening very carfully? Making the process conscious -- and expanding it to see things new -- exactly comprises the creative thinking.

How We Learn

Human beings learn only by association. We understand something new by it's relationship to something with which we're already familiar. We inch or skate our way into the world from childhood like this, depending on our temperment, experience, and feedback.

Innovation is the process of connecting dots into shapes no one has seen before. Even slight deviations to what we take for granted (eg ideas, applications, processes, and outcomes) have implications for markets and business models.

So how is one thing connected to another?

--Directly (object to object, say) or indirectly (someone who owns that object and someone else who does, too)?
--By aspiration (someone who owns that object and someone who'd like to own one)?
--Conceptually (someone who owns/makes the object and someone who influences laws around object-related issues)?
--Philosophically (education unrelated to the object owner but required for other reasons by object owners and other people who believe in education generally)?

If creativity is the ability to learn continuously across context -- to find meaning and value in different arenas and respond effectively -- then part of that response is an understanding of the connections among issues within one context and another.

The more pairings you try, the more possibilities you see. The possibilities are endless, although circumstances will dictate the best result. Whimsy is useful, but the game is seriously business-minded. Most of all, make time for all the disciplines that make creativity possible.

More in the next post on remembering how to listen.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Working Together: Why Is It So Hard?

I've been speaking to a high-level acquaintance about the challenges she faces in communications, both within and outside her company. This individual is tremendously creative, but she can't do her job effectively and is considering moving on.

The gist: because of internal traffic jams, she can't get the organization's unique value propostions to clients effectivley. Department leaders are talking, but they stick to their talking points and seem to have forgotten how to answer a question.

Defining the Problem

The organization's culture is inward-facing. Long-held fifedoms create a culture of land grabbing, even when people come in to create new departments. Each war lord has firmly established boundaries to the kingdom where he or she feels most safe and does not stray, even intellectually.

Cultural norms spread to communications strategies and hamstring companies from getting the word out. This, in turn, offers clients and prospects little more than established wisdom about the market. Even the experts won't part with an insight, primarily because there is a risk that he or she will be proved wrong.

Naturally, such a culture crushes innovation or chases away those with an interest in new possibilities. In a system bent on hunkering down defensively, risk is not an option. Anything original must be abandoned in the process of circling the wagons.

None of these problems are small individually, and together it's hard to find the end of the string. However, the bottom line is that determined internal focus both comes from and sustains a forgetfulness about clients' needs.

Creating Incentives for New Behavior

Before my friend can come up with an effective marketing plan, she needs to have something to communicate of value. To get this information, she needs to find away around gated talking points, over the walls of internal fifedoms, to the questions that clients really ask, and finally, through the barriers of answering those questions.

Key Questions

So how to get around culturally entrenched positions?

A good place to start is to ask:

What does everyone have in common? How can one leverage these goals to make leadership stray from their comfort zones? And what unifying principles would offer incentives for those who perceive each other as enemies to work together?

Clearly, an understanding of customer needs is the key to developing new offerings and develop markets. This requires a level of intimacy between business and client that you can't get from a focus groups or from hunkering down internally.

This is one place where it's important to remember where creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. Effective thinking, creativity's synonym, is comprised of a series of disciplines that anyone can develop -- and must -- as challenges and circumstances continually change.

More on going forward in the next post.