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Feb 19, 2013

More value in encouraging varied styles

How people listen may make a difference to how much innovation occurs

By Dave Crisp

Sometimes, I just plain enjoy an article because it hits a note of positivity that seems to further good strategic logic for organizations in a really useful way. Today’s email pointed to this item about the value of problem-makers in organizations. Don’t suppress them, it suggests, but encourage them. (And that means encouraging them to raise problems positively, not out of disgruntlement – a key point.)

Following along the theme of encouraging diversity in thinking and styles are a number of other recent contributions, including one the might seem unusual: Fast Company’s post asking whether machines are now "smarter" than people. In one sense they are, as the article concludes, but the two together are stronger than either alone as with virtually all forms of diversity.

Machines can analyze massive amounts of data and search out theoretical needles in haystacks, but who’s asking the questions we need answered if not intelligent human beings? One reason we can tolerate more "problem-makers" is because we have so much better tools for solving problems and we’re doing so at a much faster pace.

Learning to ask questions and listen better has long been a subject of basic articles like this. Many hints aren’t directed at specific challenges executives face, so they probably get ignored. Fast Company also recently ran an online chat webinar recently on how to listen better for more creative conversations. (Machines likely listen perfectly, but aren’t so creative at coming up with questions — so a key contribution of human beings at every level is their listening ability.)

The questions that pepper the online record of this session about how to pay better attention are startling. We clearly don’t teach listening skills as widely as we should — and, of course, we’ve observed how often it is senior executives who have the most difficulty listening.

Thankfully, we know people can learn to listen better and solve that problem if they choose. But the puzzling continues about how to either screen out or change the thinking of executives in power roles who don’t or won’t listen.

There’s so much being written on this now that it seems impossible for any executive to have missed the push to boost innovation by paying attention and giving workers some voice, but it is evident there’s still a long way to go.

For every article like this one mostly debunking the size of an executive’s signature as indicative of the size of their ego (which makes it likely they won’t listen), there are more like this one from MIX, the Management Innovation Exchange, which recently got this input via a contest for best ideas to improve organizations — showing there are still tons of roadblocks to widespread idea generation that need to change.

Oddly, the signature piece suggests one accurate conclusion can be drawn from sprawling autographs — they get higher salaries and tend to be spendthrifts: Over-investors who cause long term financial problems in organizations. Should we ask what it is that triggers some boards to promote or hire people with massive signatures and reinforce their spending authority with high pay?

Maybe it’s their innate flare. Another mystery related to the topic apparently,  perhaps somewhat validated by contrast with one well-known big ego — Steve Jobs — whose signature was not only not oversized, but even featured no capital letters: Reverse snobbery? Like the width of CEO faces mentioned in the last post, there are probably important factors behind the odd studies of these issues that we shouldn’t accept at first blush. Can machines help us ferret out what’s important? It’s an area HR hasn’t explored a lot.

Clearly the area of listening has not yet been exhausted, but how do we call executive attention to it? The concept is so simple, most people assume they understand it, but do we really?

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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