My work often involves getting familiar with a new country and sector in a short amount of time, discussing challenges with many different stakeholders and together developing and implementing strategies for change.
One skill which is crucial for this is the ability to detect patterns quickly, understand what the common themes are, the issues, people, strategies and conflicts which are mentioned again and again. What is the shared story on which we can build our planning? What are the loudest and most consistent signals?
However, one great risk when listening for the common pattern is that you distill the story that everybody knows already and focus on the issues that everybody agrees are THE issues. If you want to help people discover new possibilities, experiment with new solutions, discover the positive deviants that exist already, you have to grow a third ear which listens for things that are only said in passing (or not at all), for ideas that people laugh about or don’t dare believe in, for challenges that cannot be discussed out in the open and sometimes you have to be the one who mentions that the emperor might have forgotten to get dressed…
But how do you know what is an interesting low signal and what is just plain noise?
I tend to pick up a number of different half-sentence ideas as I travel through the system and then I try them out when I talk to the next person. Many of the ideas don’t make it to the third or forth discussion but every once in a while, the next person says: “Well, I hadn’t thought about that but now that you say it…” and they start adding weight, color, texture and context to this idea. And slowly a new door opens, a different approach emerges or we develop a clearer understanding of a long overlooked risk.
Amplifying a low signal is something I could never do alone, it is rather that I start bouncing these signals off other people and see if they disappear or become stronger.