How Innovative Leaders Make Better Decisions

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Accessing crowd voices is the key to making the right calls as great leaders have to become strategic, real-time listeners.

listeningThe loudest voices are still dominating most aspects of society including our politics, commerce, media and philanthropy. And the shortcomings of expert opinions, anecdotes and existing data collection approaches are only getting worse as the accelerating rate of change makes what was true twelve months ago no longer reliable, and survey fatigue rapidly becomes survey resentment.

Two examples help explain why surveys, polls, and the experts are increasingly off and margin of error calculations provide false indicators of precision. They also highlight a much better way for leaders to make decisions based on crowd versus loud sourced data.

The American Junior Golf Association (“AJGA”) is the hidden gem of the golf world.  The non-profit, mission-based AJGA has helped develop many of the game’s greatest players including Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods. Beginning last year, the AJGA began employing “strategic listening”- using technology to replicate how humans listen (but at scale) and making decisions based on results from the collective wisdom of the crowd. By integrating listening into a real-time, live scoring function that participants are already using, the AJGA made it incredibly easy (60 seconds or less) for players and parents to provide the feedback they want to give – the critical distinction between “listening” and traditional survey. They noticed that not only did their feedback rates increase 3x, but the nature of the feedback also changed.

“Great leaders have to become strategic, real-time listeners”

When smoke from distant fires encroached on the highly anticipated AJGA tournament held in Sunriver, Oregon this year, AJGA officials were forced to make a tough call – end play mid-tournament or potentially compromise player safety. “Either way, there were understandably going to be unhappy people,” said Mark Oskarson, AJGA Chief Operating Officer.

From a data perspective, the important point is that negative feedback surrounding this specific circumstance was going to find its way into either the historic survey data or the newer listening data due to intensity. However, it would have been exaggerated in the former 3x. In comparison, the incremental feedback AJGA was able to collect over the season using listening was more representative of what is widely viewed as an extremely well-run organization.

“We were humbled that around 90% of the listening data collected was positive including quick but important insights about host golf courses, sponsors, staff and volunteers”, said Oskarson. “It’s truly a whole new data set that confirms what we felt was the case but wasn’t always showing up in the historical surveys. Bottom line is you react, but don’t over-correct when you have access to deeper data.”

Another example comes from the iconic global beauty firm Mary Kay. Mary Kay began piloting a new productivity app to help their most important partners, the Independent Beauty Consultants (“IBCs”), manage inventory, scan products, and process customer orders among other important features.  Now in its second year, the app has become a huge success with an accelerated global roll-out scheduled. The consultants report it saves them over 2.5 hours every week- a game changing outcome for any sales force.

Like the AJGA, Mary Kay employed a 60 second, real-time listening based approach to feedback and collected over 20,000 comments during the initial months of use. Understandably, some consultants had concerns or encountered challenges with the new app.  Hundreds of these shared their feedback with senior management through the multiple channels that exist in every organization. As Paul Jones, Vice-President, Brand and Digital Marketing at Mary Kay puts it, “We might have reached very different roll-out or fundamental go-no go decisions as a company if we didn’t have such conclusive ‘crowd-sourced’ data during the launch. As the product owner, the constructive comments were invaluable when placed in the context of the overall more positive big picture, and on a tactical level, we gained clarity on the most important product roadmap dimension – what matters to our IBCs.”

What AJGA, Mary Kay and other organizations adopting listening cultures have discovered is that while listening data will still be overwhelmingly negative if that is the reality, on balance real-time listening tends to produce more positive feedback as you unlock the non-extreme voices who are happy but don’t want to spend minutes answering survey questions.

“It is a much easier decision for us to hire an intern full time when they have 15 comments from different events and participants about their great performance. Likewise, you can have development discussions sooner when a fellow staff member has no such comments and many others do,” added Oskarson.

Accessing the crowd voices is the key to making the right calls as AJGA and Mary Kay demonstrate. Great leaders have to become strategic, real-time listeners. The good news is that mobile makes this easier than ever and customers and employees want to be heard when they believe their advice is valued. And that advice turns out to be the key to great decisions.

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