Have you ever left a meeting satisfied your opinion was fully understood and accepted, only to discover later that the other person ‘heard’ something completely different? Sometimes it’s deliberate—a lack of transparency or political expediency. More often the problem is an absence of true communication. Unfortunately, most of the time we never get the feedback that tells us we’ve been misunderstood—or that we ourselves misunderstood. And we plough on, going down two diverging paths.
Western culture tends to privilege objective fact over subjective experience. In business, we can end up mistaking the spreadsheet for the people and the Gantt chart for how work is actually done. People are not simply a collection of objects following a set of deterministic rules to achieve a predefined outcome. Whenever people interact with an idea, a field is created—invisible like a magnetic field, but no less real. We perhaps only lack the ‘iron filings’ to see its effects. The quality of the field is dependent on the quality of the listening that happens between the parties.
No listening means no learning; the field is hard and fallow, with the other barely perceived. Exchanges in this field are actually not exchanges, but often a projection of egotism. The next level seeks out the facts in fierce debate; the hard metal of the plough breaks the soil and the exchange turns to ‘discussion’—which derives from the Latin ‘hitting’, the same root is behind ‘concussion’ and ‘percussion’, often bringing the same feeling. Such an exchange is not between sacred beings, but between the proverbial ‘resources’ in a spreadsheet, Gantt, or Org Chart. Good for fact-finding and unearthing the bones of contention, but not particularly generative—unlikely to lead to fresh insights.
To create new possibility, we need another level of turning toward each other. One that is more fully in tune with ourselves and with those with whom we’re engaging. This demands a level of openness, a suspension of our usual cynical routines and an acceptance of the vulnerability Brené Brown made so famous in her extraordinarily popular and resonant TED talk.
Therefore, if you are seeking a new way of working in which people bring their best possible selves to the challenges and opportunities you face, the chances of a successful outcome will be significantly enhanced if, in the first instance, you shut up and listen.
There are many different schools of change management, and some organisations prescribe how change will occur based on their preferences. On a recent assignment, I was granted the autonomy to bring all of what I know about initiating transformational change to this particular intervention. Here’s a brief description of the process.
1. Prepare for the generative interviews
From the way you frame the invitation to attend an interview to choosing an undisturbed place to conduct it, every element of the initiation of the listening process is important. Of course, you must also do your homework so you know the key areas you need to probe but be prepared to follow if the person swerves off-piste. You never know what you might discover.
I always ask for two hours and invariably hear that this is too long to take out of busy people’s days. My standard response goes along these lines: What is the time horizon of your interest in the transformation? What proportion of that horizon is the two hours? How much time have you spent since joining your organisation being deeply heard on your views about its past, present and future, and your role in it? As a senior executive, how much time do you think you need to formulate and clearly articulate your view of current reality and future vision for the next 5-10 years of the enterprise? What else are you doing that is more important than contributing to the shape of your organisation’s future? Given all the above, consider how much time you’d like us to set aside to listen to you, and we’ll restrict it to that.
2. Be fully present to the person you’re interviewing
Before the interview spend some time in quiet contemplation of how you can be of service to the interviewee. Perhaps even quietly repeat a mantra like, ‘it’s not about me, it’s about walking in your shoes’. Another useful guide to the right approach for these interviews is that of Edgar Schein, a pioneer of organisational development, and his practice of humble inquiry.
Start by asking the interviewee if they’re willing to have the session recorded and transcribed. I assure them no one else will have access to those recordings or transcripts. I explain that recording allows me to be fully present in the conversation, undistracted by taking notes. Further, the transcription allows me to pull out relevant quotes in the vernacular of the key stakeholders, always making sure the source of the quote is not traceable.
An important next step is to ask the interviewee to bring their personal story into the room: Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What did their parents do? What did they study? What were the big milestones in their career? Often, there’s shock that you’re really asking to go this far back. Perhaps there’s a nervous joke about a ‘therapy session’. But the rapport generated is unmistakeable, reminding you both that there’s far more to life than a transactional exchange on the most superficial elements of the transformation.
What follows is a series of questions which ask about the why, what, who, how and when of the transformation. I find the best conversations happen when you ask the interviewee to try to avoid collective responses (‘I think we should…’) and encourage them to talk about what they would like to happen from their own personal perspective (‘I would like to see…’). It is important for people to step into their role in the transformation, even at this early stage, in a way which demonstrates they have agency in what is unfolding. By your attitude you must create a safe listening space where the ideas and emotions of the participants can be fully expressed, uncensored and in their own authentic voice.
3. Build the big picture
Immediately following an interview jot down some salient points and general observations, either about the person or what they said. This is not intended as a judgement, but rather to help clarify in my own mind what I heard, and start the process of pattern building.
On receipt of the transcript, I commence the task of ‘panning for gold’—finding the quotes which encapsulate a key idea or theme. I use these nuggets as raw materials in the development of a series of logic trees using the Thinking Process from the TOC body of knowledge.
These trees usefully describe current reality through chains of cause and effect and help articulate a bold vision of what the transformation might deliver. The advantage of using the logical thinking process and its associated logic trees is that they can be printed out on A0 paper and scrutinised by the team for clarity, validation of causation and the effect of alternate courses of action.
One of the main goals of the exercise is to drill down the chain of cause and effect until you reach root-cause bedrock. Knowing root cause and agreeing on it through the application of the rigorous use of a structured reasoning has the effect of building strong alignment around the perennial questions of transformation: What to change, what to change to, and how to change? The problem identified as the root cause is also the place where an intervention will have the highest leverage. Don’t address the root cause and you may get temporary relief, but the problem will persist over the long haul and the transformation will fail.
I firmly believe you can achieve the greatest transformations using the Theory of Constraints (TOC) as the kernel of the operating system. But while TOC is a necessary condition of delivering a shift in productivity, it’s not sufficient. You need a method that combines process with organisational learning and organisational design.
The process of running generative interviews is the beginning of the ‘explore’ phase of a transformation journey. It fundamentally influences the next step in the process—the Foundation Workshop. My approach to taking on transformation has been heavily influenced by work done on ‘Theory U’ by the likes of Otto Scharmer, Adam Kahane, Joe Jaworski and Peter Senge. I’m also indebted to physicist-philosopher David Bohm and his classic On Dialogue as well as William Isaacs’ Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.
There’s more on this approach in my book More Than Just Work.
Download a sample chapter.
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
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