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Everything Good Starts with Listening

01/27/13

Man uses an ear trumpet

I’ve been reflecting recently on what’s worked for me in 2012 that I need to continue. And I’ve come to one big conclusion: everything good starts with listening.

Without a doubt, my 2012 work highlight was the leadership course I developed for JetBlue’s Captains, which was challenging because:

1. I didn’t know anything about being a Captain.

2. I certainly didn’t know anything about what it meant for a Captain to be a leader.

And so I hung out with Captains, asked a thousand questions, read their reports, and ultimately went to the first week of their Orientation. It paid off in participants actually finding something useful in the class, and an early class assumed I actually was a Captain.

Design thinking calls this “empathy.” In the empathy phase of a project, you are aiming not just for knowledge but for a deeper sense of what somebody’s actual needs are. A good design thinker’s antennae go up when they hear someone expressing any kind of strong emotion. They then pounce with questions or detailed field observations to understand where those emotions are coming from. You can consider yourself successful if you’ve identified something that the person themself does not know about their needs. From here, you have a good base from which to work.

I see the opposite all the time. A designer just jumps into making something without doing the preparation of getting to know the customer. This essentially means one of two things: you are designing for your own needs (which can work) or you are designing based on a trend or an assumption or an article you read somewhere. Namely, you’re designing to an abstraction, rather than to a person.

Incidentally, I also regularly quote Merlin Mann’s principle about doing good work: “First, care.” It seems like a contradiction to have two first steps, except they’re actually the same first step. Caring comes from a deep investment in a problem, which comes from investigation. I don’t understand the problems of transportation in Denver and thus don’t care and would do a poor job of solving them.

Though part of me now wants to look up what those problems are. And then go visit Denver and watch commuters struggle. I should probably nip that one in the bud.

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