Hear this: why innovators need to be better listeners.

Hear this: why innovators need to be better listeners.

Next time you’re listening to someone pitch or present, ask yourself this. Are you awarding points for content or style? Is your vote won by the presenter or lost by the presentation? What are you actually listening to and being influenced by?

These are the kind of questions I’ve often thought because my working life frequently involves deciding who will and won’t get a funding grant. I know I’ve been guilty of prizing surface-level over substance in the past, and I’ve definitely seen lots of others do the same. “The tech is great, but they need a charismatic CEO” is the sort of comment that crops up with concerning frequency in decision meetings.

It’s not just that judging panels can be easily swayed by a confident, well-presented pitch. They can also end up anchoring their conclusions in their initial (often entirely instinctive) response, even after of hours worth of discussion. Just like when we return to the first shop we visited to buy something after hours of browsing, it’s often hard to stop a group reverting to the place where it started as it reaches an important decision.

These are two sides of the same problem: our collective inability to listen. Whether that's to ourselves, to other people, and to what is really being said.

The lost art of listening

Listening is something everyone tends to think they can do well, because we have always done it, and because we spend so much of our time doing it (or at least we think we do). Telling someone they need to learn how to listen invites the same response as if you had suggested they were walking wrong, or could be tying their shoelaces more efficiently.

But it is the ubiquity of our need to listen, at work and at home, that makes it a skill that cannot be treated so lightly. HBR wrote about this in 1957, after top executives of a major manufacturing plant in Chicago were asked the role that listening plays in their work “I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself,” said one participant. “But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”

If only more people had heard him. Over six decades later, our working lives remain full of miscommunication, misunderstanding and disagreements that arise from the straightforward inability of small groups of people to listen to each other.

A project fails if its team has not collectively understood and agreed what they are trying to achieve. A customer is lost if their real needs have not been listened to, interpreted and acted upon. Problems arise when people leave a meeting believing others have agreed to something without checking that they did. We’re good at hearing what we want or expect to; less so at actually listening to what is happening around us.

Becoming a better listener

We may believe ourselves to be natural-born listeners, but listening properly is deeply counter-cultural, especially at work. We are hard-wired to believe that the rewards flow to those who can elegantly articulate an argument, win a debate and carry the room with them. None of which actually involve any listening.

These biases encourage us to over-index style and gloss over substance: averting difficult issues rather than digging into them. Outside the meeting room, the same tendency to embrace the superficial encourages an emphasis on tangible procedurals (the need to deliver a report by such-and-such deadline) over complex intangibles – the knotty problems whose resolution is key to success, and which require good listeners to solve.

Put another way, possessing two ears does not a good listener make. Listening is a skill, one that has to be learned before it can be used effectively.

One particularly helpful approach is the three ‘levels of listening’:

  • Level 1, in which you listen while mainly focused on how you will respond to what is being said;
  • Level 2, in which you listen to understand, focused as much as possible on the person speaking; and
  • Level 3, in which you listen with close attention to the circumstances of the conversation – what an individual, a group or a project needs to achieve.

Of course in practice we use a combination of all three levels most of the time. But thinking about them in this way helps us to examine how we are listening so we can be more deliberate about it. There are times where an interjection is called for, others when it is better to listen intently to what someone else is saying, and still more when a conversation requires someone to point to the bigger picture and refocus a flagging discussion.

In other words, the levels tell us to get over ourselves! We can never be a good listener and an effective team-player when stuck at Level 1, constantly thinking about how to put forward our next pearl of wisdom, or shoot down someone else’s argument. A proper listener is someone who has learned to sand down their ego and recognise what the situation calls for.

An innovation meta-skill

Better listening is not just about more harmonious working environments. It is also a critical foundation of success in any business or innovation project.

The success of the innovation projects we work with depends on those who lead them being excellent listeners. While a problem may be clear – such as trying to provide education during a pandemic to children in Uganda – the solution rarely is. It requires an iterative approach that involves listening to people’s needs, adapting to their behaviour and ensuring that you have understood the requirements and limitations of a given situation.

In the Ugandan education programme, the project team had to deal with a succession of challenges: the lack of access to technology, parents who were in many cases unable to act as teachers due to their own poor education and illiteracy, and a huge geographic dispersal.

They overcame these first by using a medium that everyone could access, radio. Then, after it became clear that better supervision was needed, they started working more closely with older siblings – usually the most educated in their family – as stand-in teachers. Finally, they continued to iterate and develop materials that reflected how this remote learning was taking place: in outdoor settings, with children and their parents often learning together using radio lessons, under the supervision of their older siblings/children.

The lesson is that listening isn’t something you have to do once. You have to keep on listening: not just at the beginning of a project, but as it unfolds and encounters real world people and roadblocks.

It’s not enough to take some initial feedback and move on. You need your ear to the ground constantly to properly understand the problem you are trying to solve, the human dimensions involved, and how people are actually engaging with your product, solution or technology.

Listening is both one of the most powerful tools we have as a species, and one of the most under-used soft skills in our professional kitbag. It is not difficult to do, but it is rare to see (and hear).

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!