For insights at work, hold your nerve and pay attention (long read)

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At work, leaders direct, and sometimes detour. Managers brief, though more are lengthy. Emails pile, syncs catch up, Slack scrolls on. Words on tired words.

We listen to most, but hear just a part, absorb less than we’d like, and miss more than we know.

I’ve seen weeks of work wasted from reading an email in haste and not checking assumptions in time. Probably you’ve seen the same.

Opportunities wasted too – sometimes when an inner voice speaks more convincingly than the evidence of one’s ears:

A government department wanted to better manage and distribute information. A consultant and a salesperson were dispatched, to see where their agency could advise.

The government team behind the information talked through pains and aspirations. The pair from the agency nodded, describing methods, successes, and a package to kick things off. The agency had some tech too, that could be useful later, and this was mentioned briefly, though the team explained politely that they were not interested, they had other ideas. But to most in the room, the consulting was interesting and, towards the end, next steps were taking shape.

And then, the salesperson spoke about the tech again. He felt it would help. He knew the team would like it. Ignoring their growingly strained faces, he listed features and pushed for a demo. Perhaps the customer’s voice was drowned by the call of recurring revenue.

As laptops were folded, not much was said, but the head of department summed it up with: “thank you so much for laying out your wares”. Like street traders with a tray of plastic, blinking toys.

HK street stall, from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The next day, when the agency got in touch, a team member civilly said that they’d decided to look elsewhere. It must have seemed as though the consulting, the main reason for the meeting, was bait being switched. Could the agency’s tech product have helped them? Maybe, alongside careful planning and changed processes. But there was never a chance to find out, because the salesperson had been too hasty to push what he thought was right, without listening. The opportunity, though just a seed, was burned.

In meetings like this, our fear of not not getting our point across or of what others will think, drowns out the important message we should be listening to.

By paying more attention to important signals, we can understand them better, and glimpse their unsaid meanings too. But we’ll have to slow down – to hold our nerve like a value investor

If people’s actual words get drowned by our busyness and inner conversations, how much more do we miss the words they don’t say or write? All the time, people – colleagues, bosses, competitors – bury their concerns in plain sight, but we’re too caught up to notice.

In an email, what does this factual phrase mean: “X said you had to approve the decision, but I’m sure they misunderstood”? In context, that could very well mean that the writer thinks we’re micromanaging. But if we skim through, we’ll miss that nuance and risk creating resentment unnecessarily.

We need a better feel for the real situations behind communications. We need some true insight, in the classical sense. That term, per Merriam Webster, refers to “apprehending the inner nature of things or … seeing intuitively”.

The term is overused now, and “insights” can mean a dashboard or something you buy from an analyst. Rich data that, unless digested, passes through without disturbing anything’s inner nature.

But real intuition is out there, we just have to work for it. To be precise, we have to pay for it. We pay not with a purchase order but with an effort; not currency but attention. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in “The Organized Mind“:

Attention has a cost. It is a this-or-that, zero-sum game. We pay attention to one thing, either through conscious decision or because our attentional filter deemed it important enough to push it to the forefront of attentional focus. When we pay attention to one thing, we are necessarily taking attention away from something else.

Paying attention to a message, we commit to dealing with it and temporarily ignoring others. The cost is to our sense of day trading the stock of information, juggling incoming text and ongoing meetings, feeling in control but actually oscillating from one context to another.

By paying more attention to important signals, we can understand them better, and glimpse their unsaid meanings too. But we’ll have to slow down – to hold our nerve like a value investor, or patiently wait as if with a passive index. Statistically, we’ll do better that way, but we’ll feel as if chances are passing us by. They probably aren’t! And by listening carefully to “text and subtext”, we can open more opportunity.

A manufacturer wanted to save time preparing their technical content. As they described to a salesperson the problems they were trying to solve, she heard something beyond what they stated.

The team writing the content said that because it was so hard to check and maintain, it reached its consumers of engineers and local area representatives too slowly. Someone said “not that they’re happy when it gets to them”. The team resented their audience’s grumbling, as they saw it, given that they were working so hard. Almost like a counsellor, the salesperson elicited from the team that the content itself wasn’t perfect – the audience struggled to find a path through the various documents affecting their roles. But there had been no time to think about this in the daily battles for accurate information.

The salesperson started to bounce ideas off the content team. Were they open to a better way to serve it up? What if it could be recombined via new mapping and linking techniques? Would the organization see the value? Apparently it could, because the sponsor signed up for a more comprehensive solution than they had thought they needed. Within a year, they had happier, more productive content consumers, as well as the more efficient content creation they sought initially.

… a strategy worthy of the name [is] a secret sauce that sets our organization apart and keeps it there.

One other thing that a listening habit can help us create: a strategy worthy of the name. As Richard Rumelt explains in “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy“, the term is mostly abused.

…for many people in business, education , and government , the word “strategy” has become a verbal tic … Cut some prices and an observer will say that you have a ‘low-price strategy.’

That we can buy off the shelf a marketing “strategy” or read “five strategies to set your content on fire”, all utterly unsurprising, means we’re a long way from Rumelt’s sense of a secret sauce that sets our organization apart and keeps it there. He redefines “good strategy” as focus, where:

… a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them.

Per Rumelt, good strategy starts with a subjective but insightful analysis of the organization’s situation:

A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.

To understand and diagnose the situation, we need to listen. We need to take in the mass of noise and information, digest it, and synthesize key factors into a simpler picture. If the diagnosis isn’t grounded in reality, it will fail when put into practice, and to Rumelt and hopefully the rest of us, a strategy without coherent action is the opposite of “good”.

For an effective diagnosis, we also need to question the evidence around us, not relying on pre-baked, pat concepts. If our diagnosis simply repeats the superficial received wisdom about the organization’s situation, it might be valid but unremarkable. The organization will struggle to keep up with a situation defined by others, instead of getting ahead, setting a focused “guiding policy” in Rumelt’s words, that “creates advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others”. His book has several examples where the standard analysis (even as a business school case study of success) turns out to be shallow and insufficient. Of course he then lays out the deeper logic of the organization’s strategy as something we can learn from. Once again, by actively listening to all the explicit and implicit cues of a situation, we become far more effective.

…it’s easy to just say “pay more attention”. Easy to accept too, like so many missions and memes, then easily gone in the stream.

Whether we are defining strategies, implementing them, or even working in a less-than-strategic environment, close listening, reading, and thinking sets us apart. By creating space and being attentive, we can do our jobs better, in a natural, unforced way.

But it’s easy to just say “pay more attention”. Easy to accept too, like so many missions and memes, then easily gone in the stream. Truth is, it’s hard to break a habit, to stop and take things in.

If you have the nerve to try, though, some simple tips might help. They’re just ideas that others have explained and practiced far better than me, but perhaps this framing will help you act. There are six tips – two to prepare, two to take in critical information, and two to follow up and make it useful. You don’t have to do them in order, or all of them. If you can only do one, try the first.

1. Make mental space with quiet moments during the day.

The pace of working life leaves little time to reflect or decompress. And we often fill spare moments by staring at a screen, tiring our minds and making it harder to take in important information.

Make mental space. Just sit and rest for a few minutes, from time to time through the day. Naturally, you’ll quickly start thinking about things you have to do, such as an upcoming meeting. Good as it is to prepare mentally for meetings, just set busy thoughts like these aside for a couple of minutes.

That’s all there is to it really. You could add more structure if you want. For example, religious practitioners may want to look at a particular image or do some prayer. A kind of side benefit of these practices can be to create mental space, though of course their goals lie beyond simply doing better at work.

But all you really need to do here, to recharge and slow down so you can listen, is sit quietly for a bit.

It’s not always easy to find quiet times and spaces in an office, and oddly, at home can be tougher as there are always tasks to do. But make yourself do it anyway, and it will get easier.

2. Set aside unimportant communications (physically, virtually, or at least mentally).

We can’t solely blame our lack of attention on the volume of information, but if we reduce the volume, it’s easier to hear what’s important. Pile and file papers, move, flag, or filter emails, mute chats judiciously and catch up when you need, and above all be aware of what you’re looking at. If you instinctively open a social media app in your phone or browser, move it or log out.

3. Stand in the speaker’s shoes.

Oddly, one of the hardest things about listening is giving up control, letting go of the inner voice in our head for a moment. As a communicator needs to put themself in the place of the audience, so we need to approach from the other side to understand their intent, or even beyond what they’re trying to communicate to what they’re thinking.

If you’re on a call, imagine where the speaker is, what they’re looking at and thinking of as they speak. Reading text, hear the voice of the writer in your mind (a good practice too when reviewing your own writing). In a live, physical meeting or presentation, there are more non-verbal cues from the speaker, but still put yourself in their place to pick up as much as you can.

Imagine too, what they’re trying to achieve with the message. Rarely is information “for its own sake”. As above, there may be a snarky subtext in what a client tells you about their colleague. A manager’s briefing is for some reason – is it purely instructions, is it something intended to develop you, or could it even be to shape up your ideas, when you’re too complacent?

From “Satellite Dishes at GCHQ Bude” by Nilfanion, on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Standing in the speaker’s shoes should be an open-minded exercise – one of empathy for sure, but not switching off our natural capability to inference from evidence. As ex chief of GCHQ David Omand writes in “How Spies Think” (a less exciting but more practical, process-oriented book than the title suggests):

Suppose you have recently been assigned to a project that looks, from the outside, almost impossible to complete successfully on time and in budget. You have always felt well respected by your line manager, and your view of the situation is that you have been given this hard assignment because you are considered highly competent and have an assured future in the organization.

However, at the bottom of an email stream that she had forgotten to delete before forwarding, you notice that your manager calls you ‘too big for your boots’. Working backwards from this evidence you might be wise to infer that it is more likely your line manager is trying to pull you down a peg or two, perhaps by getting you to think about your ability to work with others, by giving you a job that will prove impossible.

The point is not to become paranoid, but simply to understand that a speaker may have many intentions, and there is nearly always something we can learn from not only the bare words but the context behind them.

4. Have a pencil in your hand as you read or listen

A page of my notes – still clear to me, but they completed their purpose at the time of writing.

Taking notes, however scrappy, helps you digest and understand the words you’re hearing or reading. In fact, the less complete they are, the better. If we mindlessly transcribe or summarise the words, we lose the bigger picture they evoke and the context behind them. A study in the Psychological Science journal found that typing on a laptop tends to “mindless transcription”, even when the note-taker is instructed to avoid it. (The study is nicely described – free of charge – here.)

In many studies including this free book chapter, Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger explores why it is that paper-based writing (and reading) seems to enable deeper understanding. But it’s not all bad news for digital media. Other studies such as this one find that reading from screens, if you avoid distractions or take paper notes, can give you just as complete understanding. And at least one piece of research suggests that the problem with digital notes is not so much the fact that they’re digital as how they’re taken.

For me, during calls, meetings and other people’s presentations I keep a pencil and a notebook to hand, or any piece of paper if the notebook’s out of reach. I write down the odd phrase or action point. The action points get done or stored for later; the other scrappy notes I rarely return to – they’ve done their job in helping me process the incoming message.

5. Ask “What would stop me acting on these words?”

Half the words that fly about are never properly digested. On a screen or hanging in the air, they appeal, inspire, or just look obvious. We easily assent to their principle and then they evaporate. Why don’t they turn into plans or, more importantly, deeds?

In their book “The Knowing-Doing Gap”, a little old but truer than ever, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton explore the many reasons that organizational culture blocks insight from flowing into action. Much of the book suggests how executives can run things better, and perhaps how us middle managers can influence that learning process. But anyone recieving a message could put theory into practice. Instead, we continue a culture of “talking smart and talking a lot”, which reflects:

…an unstated but widely followed belief that talk is something that happens now, and action is something that happens later. The idea is that as long as we are talking about doing the right thing now, then we are using our time wisely. even if we never quite get around to doing it.

Let’s disrupt this unthinking habit by asking ourselves the question “What would stop me acting on these words?”

This question firstly forces us to understand the words as stated. Sometimes that means unpacking them first. In business, we compress complex ideas about processes and relations into acronyms and other noun phrases. We need to expand those terms to decode the message. This is as true for communications with other organizations as those from our own. In a sales or consulting meeting, or even looking at competitors’ marketing, we hear their own jargon and the common business buzzwords. Sometimes it tells us more about the organization’s inner workings, needs, and fears than they realize – retreating to jargon can show a lack of analysis.

Many ideas turn out to be less sound, less connected, than the appearance suggests. Particularly on a screen, text easily looks good to both its reader and its writer. Historian and professor of English Joe Moran, himself a superb writer, says in “First You Write a Sentence“:

First You Write a Sentence.

Writing on a computer has a pretend polish, a deceiving veneer of finality. As soon as you type, it looks neatly justified, nattily formatted and halfway to being published. And that is even before the program has tidied up your spelling, spotted what it thinks are sentence fragments, scored your writing for ‘readability’ and told you, with blithe, uninformed confidence, that you are done.

Spelling and grammar check complete. You’re good to go!

Whatever its underlying condition, an onscreen sentence will scrub up as the finished article, like a smelly man in a sharp suit.

But even without this deceptive polish, a sentence that seems full of meaning can simply be crammed with empty nouns:

The nouniness of a piece of writing is a sure sign of lack of care for the reader and lack of thought in the writer. For writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking. Nouny writing relieves the writer of the need to do either.

…tying noun phrases together with weak verbal knots is simple. Adding strong verbs is hard. A sentence should be a labour to write, not to read. Nouny sentences are the reverse: a labour to read, a breeze to write. Those who write them assume that, just by gumming nouns together, they have communicated with other human beings. All they have achieved is a lazy, bogus fluency.

Asking “What would stop me acting on these words?” can reveal the gaps in the message as composed, and the thinking behind it.

6. Work with the gaps

If communications from our managers, colleagues, or clients don’t quite hang together, let’s try to resolve it. If communications from other organizations have gaps, that’s something else to treat in a different way, as potentially valuable intelligence.

Gaps in our colleagues’ and clients’ messages

As leaders, over and again we find that our “clear briefings” do not enable enough. When we’ve composed a message, we feel it’s complete – how could anyone with half a brain not be able to put it into practice?

  • Maybe that’s because we’ve done the thing before and this knowledge blinds us to others’ lack of experience in that specific area.
  • Most likely, the deceptive polish of modern communication channels also tricks us that our message has no gaps.
  • Quite possibly, though, we don’t see the gaps because our team simply hasn’t started to implement the directions.
    Agile development’s key insight is that until you start doing a task, you can’t really understand what it involves.
    From a wider business management perspective, consultant and military historian Stephen Bungay’s “Art of Action” goes deeply into this and other gaps between an organization’s intent and what it achieves – more on this in a future blog post.

As listeners, though, we must question instructions that aren’t clear enough to put into practice.

To repurpose one of Bungay’s examples, we may have instructions to both “raise revenues by 8%” and “raise net margin to 15%”. These instructions on their own do not convey the overall intent and priority. As Bungay continues,

Art of Action

What comes first, revenue or margin? Either is possible. If our intent is to gain market share in order to strengthen our long-term position, the main effort is revenue and holding margin at 15 percent is a constraint. If our intent is margin improvement, but we want to grow with the market in order not to lose position, revenue is a constraint. We need to know which it is because we may need to make a trade-off.

If come next December, someone is sitting in front of a customer ready to take a large-volume order which will lift revenue growth to 10 percent but with a low margin which will reduce our average net margin for the year to 12 percent, what should we do? Will we be congratulated for landing a significant order and beating our target, or told off for loading up our books with poor-quality business and missing the all-important profit figure? We need to talk and get some clear direction. It might be “Aim for revenue of 8 percent but on no account allow margins to fall below 15 percent,” in which case the margin figure is a hard constraint; or we may learn that a 15 percent margin would be nice but what really matters is that it should not fall below 12 percent. Whatever the answer, we need guidance.

We must seek clarity wherever the aspirations of the organization need to be translated into purposeful action.

Of course, if the guidance isn’t forthcoming, we need to make our own decision and hope to meet both targets. But we will have done our best to raise and resolve the possible conflicting priority.

Gaps in the communication of other organizations

Our competitors’ communication gaps may show up market gaps, or at least areas where we have an advantage. Comms from other organizations too can reveal as much from what they don’t say as what they do.

Keep noticing what’s not there, or what’s described in overly generic or unconvincing language.

If a competitor’s message is “easy onboarding”, and they claim that little planning is needed, do they also promote case studies of long-term benefits to big or complex customers? If not, consider what else you know about the type of product and the problems it solves. If the claims seem too good to be true, or at least that the competitor is downplaying their lack of a robust offering, you could look at your product development, marketing, and sales efforts in that light.

Beware of using data to confirm your preconceptions, though. The methodical ex-spy chief David Omand talks of intelligence analysts using Bayesian statistics to change our opinions when new evidence arrives, and of the constant effort “to identify the many possible types of cognitive bias that might skew their thinking”.

At work, investing attention in listening and reading, reflecting on what we hear, compounds into increasingly accurate diagnoses and more effective actions.

Whatever the data we have, we must always open our minds to the full opportunity in the messages we receive, by creating space, using empathy, thinking how we can use the message, and questioning the gaps that emerge.

At work, investing attention in listening and reading, reflecting on what we hear, compounds into increasingly accurate diagnoses and more effective actions.

I wrote this post because I was worried that it’s harder to listen these days. I noticed this not only in others but in myself. I have always read a lot, and listened acutely, picking up on subtle cues that others have missed. But this year of near-universal remote working and growing responsibility has found me skimming through some emails cursorily and sometimes multitasking (actually context switching) during calls, meaning I’ve sometimes missed useful info in my haste.

There are plenty of good resources on how to write or present so our message will be understood better. There are also great books (including a couple that I mentioned above) on how to design learning organisations where ideas are thought through and really put into practice. But there’s not a lot of material for intelligent adults on how to better use the words we read or hear.

Writing these thoughts and tips has helped me shape things up in my head. I know a couple of my personal connections will find them useful, and I hope they’ll be interesting to others too.

Thanks to Susannah Davda for reviewing a previous version and suggesting helpful changes.

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