Listening More Attentively

When I was in university, my housemate Dave had an old King Crimson bootleg in which there's this guy screaming LOUDER LOUDERRRRR LOUUUUUUDDDDERRRRRR! Finally, wanting to spare the rest of the audience from listening to this yahoo any more, Robert Fripp says, "I am hearing requests to play louder, but perhaps this gentleman could listen more attentively." (Exact quote is likely mangled by this being a rather distant memory.) It strikes me this morning that this is what I'm asking / begging / cajoling people to do every day. We could seriously benefit from listening more attentively.

When we are running any type of project, be it a multi-billion dollar construction project, a multi-million dollar software deployment, or even just keeping the lights on in our restaurant - the goal isn't always the big win. The goal is sustainability - both in longevity and in attentiveness.

No human endeavor benefits from neglect.

Listening Attentively

However, we neglect to be attentive to our real businesses. Opting instead to focus on metrics, deadlines, and other arbitrary elements we set because we are unwilling to listen attentively. Rather than focus on what is really happening - on the subtle changes and nearly inaudible nuances that can provide deep insight - we focus on balanced scorecards or other artifacts. We create the louder, because we are too busy or too important to listen to the softer.

The softer, the more intricate, is often hard for us to discern from just background noise. It's harder to tell if it is an anomaly. It requires work.

But the softer and more intricate is also our context. It's the details. It's what makes that solo anything other than an individual performance. The loud is only loud in contrast. Contrast only makes sense when you are actively contrasting.

We have had clients routinely collect pages and pages of metrics from their teams. These metrics would go up some weeks and down others. The managers would get very happy when the metrics went up. They would be sad when they went down a little. They would become angry when they went down a lot.

The problem here is that they rarely understand the context of their metrics. They had no idea what a normal fluctuation in a number was. They merely knew that up was good and down was bad.

They are listening to the LOUDER of their charts and graphs without hearing the sotto voce of daily work - the cultural rumblings, the unrealized good ideas, the popular workarounds to bureaucracy, how the company is working independent of the arbitrary numbers.

Listening attentively is not easy work and it can be rather capricious. Whenever I listen to music I may have heard hundreds of times before, but is experienced through new headphones or a different format, I can hear things I've never heard before. So the mechanisms are important, but what's also important is to know that we'll never hear everything. We'll always be dealing with some limitations in fidelity.

Which means we, as listeners, as business owners or managers, need to listen as often and from as many perspectives as possible. If not, we'll never understand what is really happening.

- Philadelphia, PA, 24 April 2014

Photo isn't mine, but I'd sure be proud of it if it were. Go here for the original article, it's nice.