High quality listening skills are so important to many roles across various types of organizations. I am reminded of this constantly. Recently, that reminder came through watching a documentary about the assassination of US President James Garfield in 1888. Dr. Willard Bliss, the physician treating President Garfield, was guilty of not listening. He was perhaps blinded by his own ambition, or maybe his ego. Dr. Willard was not an uneducated man, he was understood the importance of listening, he had to in order to achieve the status he had. When Alexander Graham Bell visited the injured president to offer the use of his newly developed technology in metal detection in attempt to find the bullet lodged in his body, Dr. Bliss would not allow Bell to test the instrument on the president’s left side, claiming that the metal springs in the bed were interfering with the device. Why Garfield could not be moved to another bed without metal springs, or why Bliss did not simply allow Bell to at least try on the opposite side of Garfield will likely never be fully known. Regardless, the hindsight wisdom is of course that he should have been more open to alternatives, putting his ego, ambition, or whatever was in the way of his ability to listen in the best interest of his President and patient.
In a software company listening to customers is also quite important. There are two parts to listening: the actual act of listening, and the interpretation of what is being communicated. The latter being achieved often by ensuring the right questions are asked to ensure the sharer of information is providing all of the right context and information necessary to make a good decision. In a product management role the act of listening to the customer is often driven by the organizational structure more so than the individual with the opportunity to listen. What I mean by that statement is that some companies promote as much communication as possible between product analyst teams and their end users (customers of the product) understanding the benefit that comes from that communication is much more often than not positive improvements in the product feature sets. Other companies stifle this communication by providing a process by which there are teams that build the product and then there are teams that manage the customer relations. The idea is to isolate or protect the builder teams from too much customer chatter to keep their productivity levels high. But the problem is the same one found in the game of Telephone (Chinese Whispers), where the resulting message communicated to the builders that originated from the client engagement folks is not the intended message! Building software is a complex task, and there is much room for error when taking this approach.
As the software industry matures, one of the leading ideas that has introduced an incredible paradigm shift in this regard is the Agile Manifesto, an idea that many of you are likely very familiar with. Following the Agile Manifesto, and associated methodologies that are built on its principals ensures that you and your team are outstanding listeners. In fact, the third rule in the manifesto is “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.” Agile also supports a very strong idea of accountability, ensuring that you and your teammates are all good listeners, among other things. So how is your listening? Are you asking the right questions by deeply processing what your customers are saying and applying critical thinking?