Sunday, January 27, 2019

Could listening be the biggest source of ideas?

“No, no, that’s not possible”. One participant in my workshop was telling another. Both of them had more than twenty years of experience. So they were experienced senior managers. However, what was conspicuously missing in their conversation was listening. And I would like to explore here if listening could be the biggest source of ideas.

The two gentlemen arguing with each other were responding to the idea of remotely monitoring a large power station located in a remote hilly area. The person proposing the idea was saying that it is already implemented in other parts of the world. The other skeptic was firm. He said, “It won’t work in our organization”. They were both from a Public Sector Unit (PSU) and the skeptics were confident that the culture of the organization doesn’t allow such an idea to be implemented.

Perhaps the skeptic was right. Maybe the idea won’t work in their company. However, there was no harm in considering it as a possibility at this early stage. There was no serious study done yet to the best of their knowledge and no experimentation was carried out. What lacked at this stage is listening with “It’s possible” attitude. And perhaps by honing the openness in listening one may access a large pool of ideas.

The situation where one defends one’s ideas and rejects others’ ideas is something I witness in every workshop. The teams have hardly done any experimentation in building their case and yet they are ready to take a position and defend their idea. Instead of defending, if they could just listen and make of note of various comments and suggestions, they would have access to so many more ideas.

A decade ago I wrote a blog “Do ideas float in the air?” It was inspired by an article in New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell titled “In the air: who says big ideas are rare?” The hypothesis here is that big ideas are floating in the air and are just waiting to be listened to. If your listening antenna is sharp enough you will catch it. It needs “it’s possible” attitude while listening. And it looks like this attitude doesn’t come naturally to many of us.

In 1878, Prof. Barker of University of Pennsylvania suggested to Thomas Edison that he should subdivide electric light so that it could be got like small units like gas. And he listened. Hundred years later (1976) Mike Markkula wrote a document called “The Apple marketing philosophy” and suggested to Steve Jobs that the first tenet of marketing should be empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customers. And Jobs listened.

Today we get to hear ideas not only from personal interactions but also from podcasts, TED talks and other sources of social media. Perhaps all it needs is listening with “it’s possible” attitude and discipline of noting down ideas that interest you. How can your idea pipeline be dry if you listen?

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