Lisagor: Innovation by listening

It was an endless late-night gathering. The doughnuts were stale. The coffee tasted like thick jet fuel. Discarded overhead transparencies, many never viewed, were scattered across a long mahogany conference table.

As a young department manager, I had just presented the truth about what I considered to be a foolish investment for company officials to make. Rather than exploring my arguments, my boss was shocked that I had questioned his decision. I collapsed in the corner — my career thoroughly riddled with verbal bullets. A few of my peers considered speaking up. "Wait!" they wanted to say. "There are major problems that still haven't been discussed." But they kept their own counsel. The fluorescent lights appeared to dim as the executive leaned back in his chair and told me to proceed with the ill-fated project.

Most of us have suffered managers who used their organizational mandate as an excuse to be impatient with dissenting views. It doesn't take long before staff meetings become rubber stamps for such an executive's decisions.

Many managers are so busy being busy that they barely have time to listen. Or they think that allowing their subordinates to speak out is a sign of weakness.

I once received feedback that my employees were upset when I answered my phone during conversations with them. They saw this as a clear indication that I didn't respect them or their time. So, I learned to let my voice mail answer the calls, or I started a meeting by explaining that I was expecting an important call. What really matters in life — my relationships with people — takes time to nurture and maintain.

It is vitally important to listen to what your employees have to say. They can provide insights that help you demonstrate appreciation for their contributions and experience and avoid critical mistakes. Unfortunately, organizations regularly promote otherwise talented managers who have the interpersonal skills of hyenas. This weakness often results in the inability to consider ideas that differ from their own, which stifles creativity. Organizations eventually suffer from stagnation, degraded service and reduced profitability.

In my imagination, a young manager presents a contrary view at a late-night meeting. His supervisor welcomes the thorough analysis and praises his willingness to express reservations. The resulting dialogue leads to the implementation of some key risk mitigation measures. Promotions and bonuses are had by all!

Organizational growth requires both innovation and change. This can't take place if new ideas are suppressed. As managers, we need to engage in constructive conversations with our employees. The problems they reveal and insights they share are critical to long-term success.

Lisagor is program co-chairman for E-Gov's 2004 Program Management Summit. He founded Celerity Works LLC in 1999 to help information technology organizations accelerate and manage their business growth. He can be reached at lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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