The Danger of not Listening in a Time of Change

Jonas Bladt Hansen
Aug 22, 2019 · 9 min read

Co-authored with Anders Martinsen

More than 70 % of all change initiatives fail. You could say, that organizations are brilliant at solving the wrong problems.

Actually, it is possible to have a brilliant career by doing all the wrong things. You just need to solve the problems you are being asked to solve — no questions asked — and you’re the employee of the year.

I know, it sounds a bit too good to be true. But think about it. How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you needed to do something. Right now. There is no time to discuss if it’s the right problem because it has already been agreed at the executive level that this is the case. It might frustrate you a bit, but you know — if you solve the problem your executives will be happy.

The reason for focusing on the wrong — or less important — problems can be boiled down to one thing.

Our ability to listen and understand.

You might have heard it before. But here’s the twist: It’s your ability to listen to questions that could make the difference.

“It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” — Eugene Ionesco.

Many organizations are not designed to listen, they are designed to get things done

A lot of organizations are not designed to listen. They are still organized in a hierarchical way like they were in the 1950s when it was all about producing and selling products as cost-efficient as possible.

Today it’s about selling services and products that match the consumer’s needs. It’s about understanding what people really want and not just how you can push out your products on the shelves. Product cycles are shortened and there is a huge need for continuous innovation.

But a lot of organizations are not able to come up with new ideas. They are still stuck in the old ways of working — focusing on efficiency. And all the problem solvers who were hired to execute are not necessarily the best people to come up with new ideas — which makes a typical ideation workshop look like this:

The efficient organizational structures from the 50' s have now become a bureaucratic monster. That’s why organizational structures will change. And the change models we work with today will be challenged as well.

Change happens all the time. Not only in change projects.

Neither Kotter’s 8 step model for change nor Prosci’s ADKAR model can help you identify new ideas or the right problems. They can help you structure a process of change, and execute the process, but offer little help to identify the problem. The models also take for granted that change is being led and created by someone. But change happens all the time, whether you like it or not — and whether you see it or not.

And this will only accelerate in the future. We will see self-managing teams organized around specific tasks — which will break up the existing silo structure of HR, Sales, Marketing etc. The teams will be empowered to make the right decisions at the right time — with no middle managers to stall the process. Organizations don’t have time for bureaucracy anymore.

From Stanley Mccrystal’s book, “Team of Teams”

Take a look at how Haier reduced bureaucracy if you’d like to know more about what I mean. Change will happen all the time and can not be driven top-down.

There is another way

So, I asked myself if there would be another way where change and ideation were not driven top-down but by people themselves. Lucky for me, I stumbled upon a TED talk by Pia Lauritzen, the inventor of Qvest.

Pia lives in the same city as I do — Copenhagen — so I decided to meet up with Pia to discuss new approaches to change.

But before I tell you more about Qvest and Pia, let me explain why failure to listen leads you to make wrong assumptions, why there is a problem with questions today — and why I believe that context is king.

Why you make wrong assumptions

Many change initiatives are initiated by people in the executive branch who are the last to know about what is really going on in the organization.

The Iceberg of Ignorance is a great visualization of this problem. You could say, that Executives and Team Managers often see challenges on an aggregated level. However, they currently don’t have the right tools or approaches that could help with more granular input on people’s experiences at work. And that could lead to making the wrong assumptions.

Let’s say sales numbers have been declining for some time. Your sales executive might say: “We need a new marketing campaign! We have seen how that has boosted sales before.” And it might help for a while.

But the severe problem is that the front-line staff has been poorly informed about the products they sell. They don’t know enough about the unique selling points and wonder why it’s so hard to find information about the products they sell.

Today’s problem with questions

“Today, asking questions is an exercise of power” — Pia Lauritzen, Qvest.

For some years, there has been a huge focus on educating leaders to ask ‘the right’ questions. Toyota’s 5x why approach or books like “The coaching habit” are examples of this. I have tried these methods myself, and they definitely help you get a better understanding of an issue.

But there are some challenges with being the one asking the questions:

  • It’s still only one person who is asking the questions.
  • It can quite often become an interrogation to assess and not an invitation to engage.
  • The person who asks the question is the one who decides what is being talked about and who is being asked.
  • People might give answers they know their manager would like to hear — or what would make them appear in a better light.
  • You might have already decided what the problem is and frame your question accordingly (like, “how do we run better TV commercials?”)
  • Or, you don’t ask questions at all. You are so confident that you think you know what the problem is, that you don’t need to make it more complex than it already is.

Blame it on your brain. You frame questions or ask no questions at all because your brain does not like complexity. Dealing with complexity consumes energy and you risk dying from hunger by spending too much energy on thinking (seriously, that is what the brain is trying to prevent!). You only have a certain amount of will power every day. Something that former US President Barack Obama and Facebooks CEO Mark Zuckerberg are well aware of.

Instead, you simplify the problem by using your past experiences. You fill in your knowledge gaps with similar past experiences. This is where you risk making the wrong assumptions. But your brain is happy — and you might be too because your brain will reward you with a shot of dopamine!

Context is king

In my 15 years of experience from working with executives and being a leader myself, I believe that understanding context is king. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if it does not make sense to people in their context it doesn’t really matter. I am often surprised to see how little effort organizations put into listening to their people, their customers or stakeholders and understanding their contexts.

Organizations focus on the past to make decisions about the future

Often, marketing only measures the reach or sales effect of their campaign and measures their brand score every quarter. The communications department receives a monthly overview showing if their news coverage was positive or negative. HR’s finest listening tool is a yearly engagement survey.

And the customer service department relies on a monthly Net Promoter Score. All these numbers are backward-looking, they hardly give you an understanding of the context and worst of all, the change initiatives you initiate will be based on a few backward-looking numbers. No wonder, change initiatives fail!

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein.

Don’t get me wrong here — I am not saying that you shouldn’t measure the things I just described. But if you only base decisions on these numbers, you could easily end up making the wrong assumptions, as I have stated earlier. It’s tempting to do so, and I have seen it happen many times.

It’s time to listen

“We let people in organizations interview each other and by doing that the change happens by itself ” — Pia Lauritzen, Qvest.

We are back in Copenhagen in Qvest’s office listening to Pia’s thoughts about how change can happen instantly. According to her, change is already happening when you run a Qvest because of the sense-making process that is going on.

How Qvest works

Qvest engages everyone in asking questions. People can ask anyone who are participating in the Qvest. The only thing that is framed is the topic — for instance, ‘Customer service in the future’. If you receive a question from one of your co-participants, you answer and then you get to ask a new question to another participant. Like a relay. The Qvest usually takes 3–5 days.

Currently, a lot of consultants are being paid for coming up with answers to problems organizations think they have. Qvest on the other hand gives everyone access to the problems and solutions that people experience when they do their everyday job. Or with the words of Pia, it upgrades the organizational intelligence.

It is also possible to see who is being asked. And what kind of questions are being asked (do people ask how, what, why or when?).

The type of the question and who is being asked can offer some interesting insights. For instance, if there is a tendency towards asking executives, it could indicate that the organization is hierarchical. If people ask a lot of what and how questions, they might be too focused on getting things done and less on really understanding what the problems are.

You will also get an organizational network analysis that is based on people’s actions instead of their intentions. A classic network analysis asks people: “Who would you go to if you need help or advice?”. The answer is based on what the person would intend to do. Qvest shows what people are actually doing — who they actually did go to.

All in all, Qvest offers insights and perspectives about people’s experience that traditional surveys can’t.

The below overview shows you the difference between a traditional survey and Qvest:

Through the conversation with Pia, I realized that Qvest is not only analyzing, but also synthesizing context. It not only breaks down a substantial whole into parts or components but also combines the components in order to form a coherent — new — whole. All with a focus on context. And context is the platform for gaining knowledge.

And interestingly, change can happen instantly through the conversations people are having with each other.

Getting the mix right

There is a need for tools that can amplify people’s voice in the organization to balance the quantitative data organizations use to understand what is going on. Data is only valuable if you understand the context. And who knows, maybe this could be the trick to cut the Gordian knot of failing change initiatives.

Get more perspectives on the Future of Work at www.inversus.info

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Jonas Bladt Hansen

Written by

Writer for The Startup. Keynote speaker on the Future of Work, Communication and Employee Engagement. Owner of www.inversus.info

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +562K people. Follow to join our community.

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