ManagementSpeak: We have a open door policy.
Translation: We ask our disgruntled employees to identify themselves. It makes it much easier to determine who our problem personnel are for our next round of layoffs.
Because of KJR’s open door policy, though, you got to read Dan Grotefend’s excellent translation.

Many citizens gripe that politicians pay too much attention to opinion polls. Not me. Any time politicians pay attention to what citizens are thinking, it means that for at least a few moments they aren’t thinking about which lobbyists will pony up how much in campaign contributions and how they’ll have to vote as a quid pro quo.

Before you complain about public servants who pay attention to opinion polls, ask yourself what you’d do to find out what your constituents are thinking. Then, ask yourself what you’re doing every day to find out what the men and women who work in your organization are thinking — a challenge that isn’t dissimilar.

If you’re a front-line supervisor, or otherwise lead a small organization, the job is reasonably simple because you can take the time for conversations with each and every one of them. If you lead a thousand-person IT organization, you can’t do that. Welcome to the challenge of organizational listening — the art of hearing what your organization has to say to you.

When you lead a large organization, hearing what it has to say isn’t easy. It is, however, vital to your success because that’s how you find out What’s Really Going On Out There … and if you don’t know, you’re making ignorant decisions. Not a good idea.

Leaders of large organizations have many listening channels at their disposal. That’s the good news. The bad news is, none of them are particularly good, so all you can do is use as many as possible to assemble a reasonably accurate picture. For example:

  • Chain of command: Most business leaders rely more on their chains of command than any other organizational listening channel. It’s a poor choice, because the only positive aspect of the chain of command is that it make efficient use of your time — faint praise at best. Otherwise it’s pretty awful.In most chains of command each manager carefully filters out anything that might call his or her performance into question. The filtering is intrinsic to the channel. You can mitigate it through extensive leadership training and careful management of the business culture, but you can’t eliminate the problem. Blind spots beget blind spots too: The worse the manager, the less likely you are to find out about a problem through the chain of command, if for no other reason than that bad managers hire bad managers.
  • Metrics: Yes, metrics. Despite the almost cult-like obsession with metrics in business circles these days, metrics are just one organizational listening channel among many. When designed and implemented well, a system of metrics provides an unbiased window into an organization. What it lacks is nuance — even the best system of metrics is a low-resolution instrument.Most systems of metrics aren’t well designed, though. As you look at the numbers collected in your organization, remember that measurement is hazardous and its interpretation more so. You get what you measure, hazardous because if you measure the right things wrong you get the wrong results, and if you measure the wrong things right you get the wrong results. Worse yet, anything you don’t measure you don’t get, and usually those are what’s most important.
  • Open door policy: You should have one. Listen to everyone who takes advantage of it. Recognize two limitations: (1) Just because someone tells you something that doesn’t mean it happened that way; and (2) you’re getting a biased sample — you’re only hearing from those who are angry enough, upset enough, and bold enough to walk through your door.What’s that? If someone is too timid, they don’t deserve your attention? They need to take responsibility? Maybe, and if your goal were to give your attention as a reward to the deserving you’d have a point. But if your goal is to find out What’s Really Going On Out There, there’s no particular reason to equate boldness with perspicuity.

These are just three channels among many. Analyze the others and you’ll reach similar conclusions — the signal they deliver is noisy and distorted. Your only hope is to use as many as you can and combine what they tell you. Oh, and one more thing: The listening channels aren’t the only source of distortion.

Remember that the more you like what you’re hearing, the less likely it is to be accurate. Your own biases can make you deaf … and blind … to everything you most need to know.