What do you do when the boss announces a major decision and subsequent surveys show his coworkers and customers strongly disagree?
If you are the Commander-in-Chief and have an army at your disposal, you may go ahead anyway. But most organizational leaders usually think a better strategy is to stage a tactical retreat, however humiliating.
The should-we-bomb-Syria situation serves as a good reminder to do your listening first before you announce major decisions or take bold actions.
Research is a critical tool for contemporary decision-making. It is less about seeing which way the wind is blowing than about understanding the context in which you are acting.
Knowing what your employees, stakeholders and customers think doesn't confine you. However, it does inform you about their receptivity to your product, service or idea. You can move ahead with more understanding of the challenge you face in making the sale or convincing a skeptic.
Too often, business and nonprofit leaders think of research as a one-off activity. You conduct a survey or a focus group to see what people think in the moment. A better construct is to see research as an integral and ongoing part of decision-making.
"Forces for Good," a book that showcases high-impact nonprofits, notes a common thread of success is an external focus. They ask what their constituents or customers need and how they are uniquely qualified to meet that need. That requires continuous contact with constituents and customers to know their desires, fears and concerns.
Another misconception is that research means conducting a telephone poll. Research can take many other forms — one-on-one interviews, meeting with people informally over lunch and customer intercepts at the point of sale. Digital technology allows organizations to maintain ongoing contact with their customers and employees, which can involve asking questions, sharing information and asking for advice.
The phrase "radical listening" captures the essential worth of research. Through radical listening, you intentionally dig for what people really think and feel beyond just what they say about a particular subject. You move past superficial perceptions, even current conflicts, to perceive deeper meaning and latent opportunity. Sometimes it as simple as seeing a situation the way it is without the lens of your own bias. Call it market intelligence.
You can avoid putting yourself in a box — or operating in a vacuum — by wisely employing a wide range of research to get closer to your important audiences. What they think is invaluable to what you do. And you are smart if you know what they think before you do anything.