The “mental models” we hold either limit or expand our opportunities. I had the good fortune to collaborate with Wharton’s Jerry Wind, the authority on mental models in business, on an essay for Listen First! on listening’s mental model and how it needs to change. (For more on mental models, read his classic text written with Colin Crook, The Power of Impossible Thinking). The essay is provided in its entirety, excerpted from Listen First! (pp. 232-235 Wiley 2011).
The End of Listening as We Know It: From Market Research Projects to Enterprise Value Creator by Yoram (Jerry) Wind, Lauder Professor of Marketing, the Wharton School, and Stephen D. Rappaport, the Advertising Research Foundation
Called “the world’s largest focus group,” “free mind-reading,” and other superlatives, many researchers have grabbed onto social media listening as the latest way to harvest consumer “insights” from “rivers” of “authentic, unfiltered conversations” in the social Web. Few will refute the notion that listening is a priority for companies of all sizes. However, we argue that its potential is severely limited by the conventional mental models held by so many people today. The widely shared mental model is short term in focus and fails to lay the groundwork for an enduring model of listening, one that will provide companies with insights, competitive advantages, and the ability to create value through time, and carry them through the disruptions we know will inevitably occur (though we’re not sure when or how, quite yet.).
In both our business and personal lives, we have unique ways of seeing the world, mental models of how and why things work or fail, whether it’s a business success, a new idea, or why Brad and Jen will not get back together again. Neuroscience teaches us that we actually discard most of what we take in through our senses. Instead, the world we experience evokes an internal model of reality—our mental model. When you stop to think about this, it makes sense: How else could we survive in the world if we didn’t have a way for rapidly dealing with situations? Stereotypes perform a similar function. Without them, we would suffer from mental paralysis caused by the need to organize our understanding of the world each time out.
The fact that mental models are so helpful is what makes them so hard to break. That’s not bad when they still explain things correctly in a stable environment. However, incompatible old mental models can be a detriment in today’s complex, uncertain, and changing business world. What usually happens is this: We hold onto these models, even after they’ve failed, and risk succumbing to insanity as Einstein defined it—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What we need to do is replace those outdated, ineffective models with new ones. That’s a considerable challenge, but it’s one we can certainly meet.
Listening’s mental model is no exception. In our view, the current paradigm emphasizes consumer insights and customer service—the so-called sweet spots that, because of their popularity, limit other applications. The industry is only getting more of the same, as “smart” money bankrolls conventional listening startups. And as the market takes shape around commodity offerings, researchers view listening as just another research method to be trotted out as an internally buzzworthy alternative to focus groups or other forms of qualitative research. “We’re hip, we’re listening,” they claim. But they’re not.
The New Mental Model For Listening
The new mind-set must allow listening to become a sustainable activity that is embedded throughout the organization. It must be encouraged to become a resource for creating significant enterprise value. In other words, a new mental model must allow listening to achieve its promise. A straightforward method for presenting the current and emerging mental models is through a series of statements beginning with “from” the old and “to” the new.
We contend that the mental model has five aspects: who we listen to; why we listen; how we listen; what we listen to, and engagement. Each category has one or more rules, which we review here.
Who We Listen To
1. From a focus on consumers to a focus on all stakeholders (companies, regulators, interest groups, etc.).
Why We Listen
2. From market research and customer service priorities to incorporating listening into all other business functions, including, but not limited to, marketing, sales, R&D, legal, manufacturing, logistics, and investor relations.
How We Listen
3. From two-way company-customer listening to n-, or multiway, listening to the web of conversations within and across communities of interest.
4. From subjective interpretation of conversations to more explicit, quantitative analysis, assisted and increasingly automated by technology.
5. From ad hoc listening projects to systematic, always-on listening.
6. From listening through the filters of our current mental models and stereotypes to one that’s free of biases and enables people’s voices to be heard as fully as possible.
7. From a single interpreter to bringing together multiple perspectives and viewpoints that enrich analysis and interpretation.
What We Listen To
8. From a focus on the written word to verbal and nonverbal information. Our view of verbal and nonverbal information is broad. It includes, but is not limited to: analysis of the way data are presented; videos and other enclosures; dynamics of the discussion captured; behavioral metadata; emotions and biometric signals.
9. From shallow meanings derived from text to deeper meanings grasped through cues, such as vocal intonation or emotional correlations.
Engagement as the Priority
10. From listening passively to consumers, as one of the marketing research tools of the organization used tactically, to active “network listening” whereby companies are not just looking for feedback but fully taking into account all types of signals, engaging with and listening to all consumers and stakeholders across all touchpoints, and using listening to guide enterprise strategy and value creation.
Putting the New Mental Model to Work
The first step in changing a mental model is, unsurprisingly, to change your own thinking. If you’re a golfer or even follow golf casually, you’ve probably noticed that some pros are shooting lower scores than ever before. A short while ago, shooting 59 in a competitive round was an extraordinary, exceptional achievement; it’s still rare today, yes, but it’s happening more often. There are more scores in the low 60s than ever before. What’s more is that these scores aren’t achieved by the superstars, but rather by the capable and less-heralded tour players. And it’s not due to the equipment; it’s due to a change in golfers’ mental models. Over the last several years, the golf school that has been rated most highly is run by fundamentals instructors Lynne Marriott and Pia Nillsson, not gurus like Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, or David Leadbetter. In Marriott and Nillsson’s program, called Vision 54, they ask their pro golf clients the following question: “You’ve played this golf course umpteen times and birdied each hole at one time or another. Why not birdie every hole in one round?” Traditionally, golfers didn’t think like this, but a group is beginning to do just that, and scores are dropping. Remember the four-minute mile? The common belief was that it couldn’t be broken—that is, until Roger Bannister said: “Why not? I will.” Over the following three years, 16 other runners broke the four-minute mile barrier, because it had been a mental barrier, not a physical one. The notion of physical limits to performance seems almost quaint, because our mental models have changed so much.
Adopting listening’s new mental model requires a change agent, and it begins with you. But like scientific paradigms, new ideas don’t simply win out on their merits. They require evidence, acceptance, a supportive culture and values, and business processes built on listening, sharing, and consultation, all to support enterprise value creation and increase accountability. Without those there’s no reason why others should stick their neck out. They’ll simply do what most workers do best: support the status quo ante.
Benefits Of Adopting Listening’s New Mental Model
We believe that listening’s new mental model will help companies turn themselves inside out. This will enrich all management functions, by turning their attention 180 degrees, from their internal focus to an abiding external focus on all relevant stakeholders. Listening will be a force that drives the conversion of firms locked on managing customer relationships to management by customers. Instead of customers relating to a company in ways the company determines, the company will relate to its customers in ways customers want them to. That’s a big flip; and although it will challenge management, it will help bond companies and customers more closely together, through better consultation and dialogue.
Once adopted and welded to the enterprise, an engine of value creation will be humming. The day is coming when companies will furnish the right offering—whether a product, service, solution, or experience—to the right people at the right time; manufacture more effectively and efficiently; and greatly improve marketing, distribution, and service. Additionally, the mental model supporting enterprise listening is key to effective risk management and capturing new opportunities. These benefits can contribute to achieving the objectives relevant to all stakeholders.
You might be thinking, “Well all that sounds great; we’ll be set.” Although we make the argument that effective listening, following our 10 rules, is a necessary condition to reap the benefits we list, it is not sufficient. You must implement your takeaways from “listening” to our words.
The necessity to shift one’s thinking is expressed simply by the American poet William Carlos Williams in his multi-book poem, Patterson. These lines from Book 2 are motivating:
Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind changes, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate : unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring