Tune In, Turn On

Someone recently forwarded me a list of important leadership characteristics, from the U.S. Air Force of all places, as part of their program to identify “emerging leaders.”  The list resulted from a comprehensive review of knowledge on the subject of leadership, and results in eight concise characteristics:

1. Is willing to assume responsibility. 2. Motivates and encourages others. 3.  Demonstrates creativity. 4. Is innovative. 5. Searches for new ideas and different ways of doing things. 6. Seeks opportunities for self-development. 7. Actively listens to others. 8. Expresses ideas in a clear and concise manner.

While characteristics such as “assuming responsibility” and “motivating others” are certainly familiar from the “leadership greatest hits list,” some, such as “demonstrating creativity,” “searching for new ideas,” and “actively listening to others” are a bit surprising coming from the Air Force.  When the military, the ultimate top-down, command-and-control organization (by design and out of necessity) cites both creativity and innovation as important, it’s probably safe to assume we civilians should also be able to observe these characteristics in our corporate leaders.  Those folks who are paid princely sums to help the companies we invest in successfully navigate through the thick and thin. Unfortunately, when I do a mental tally, I must admit that identifying corporate leaders demonstrating those traits is the exception, rather than the rule. (Come to think of it, certain leaders of large financial services firms leap to mind as potentially just a tad bit too innovative. But that’s for another blog post.)

The notion of “actively listening to others” grabbed my attention.  Mostly because that’s probably my personal greatest weakness in the leadership department.  Being creative, innovative, and motivating well, I find that to be the easy part.  Or at least those characteristics come relatively easy to any marginally successful entrepreneur.  It’s putting one’s own ideas aside just long enough to really hear what someone else is saying that’s the challenge.  And I suspect I’m not the only one deficient in this area.

I found six principles that form the core of “active listening” on the management website, BNet: “Encourage people to express opinions; clarify perceptions of what is said; restate essential points and ideas; reflect the speaker’s feeling and opinions; summarize the content of the message to check validity; and acknowledge the opinion and contribution of the speaker.”  Hmm, useful tips for leaders.  Also, sounds like a highly relevant set of guiding principles for anyone leading a company’s product development process.  Specifically with respect to how consumers should be brought into the process, but also, of course, in relation to managing the process internally and between partners.

Let’s do a quick review of each of the six principles.  “Encourage people to express opinions.”  This is the obvious one, but unfortunately this is where most research starts and stops.  “Clarify perceptions of what is said.”  Okay, a focus group, when well done, provides this first round of vital feedback.  “Restate essential points and ideas.”  This typically happens, but usually only after the input has been over thought by the product development team and their partners, certainly not in real time with the same consumers who provided the initial input.  The rest of the guidelines?  Forget about it.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that various forms of active listening are at the heart of most new product development breakthroughs — whether as part of a well-run corporate process, or the seed that first sparked an idea in the mind of an inventor.  The notion of observation, followed by a series of dialog-driven iterations, is perhaps one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Both for driving innovation, but also for making sense of the world.

Few of us are smart enough to figure it all out on our own.  When we do listen to input, it tends to be selective and episodic at best.  Usually we’re able to discern one small piece of the puzzle through observation. This initial conjecture then gets refined through measured internal reflection or expediency into a half-baked idea, rarely with the luxury of the user, partner or employee iterations required to really get something right.  So let’s all give active listening a try: drop your guard; open your mind; stay focused; repeat back what you thought you heard; now do it again.  Eventually we’ll figure it out, but probably not on our own, and probably not the first time.  Come on, admit it, you don’t know it all.  And your first reaction, well, hate to break it to you, it’s probably the wrong one.