Are you listening? How to solve any problem in three simple steps.


I have a secret that I am going to share with you. There are three very simple steps you can take to help you solve almost any problem in your business or organisation. Whether it be related to staff, customers, operations or anything else, it doesn’t matter. Take these three steps, repeat and you will eventually get to a positive outcome.

Step 1: Ask

Step 2: Listen

Step 3: Act

Sounds too simple right? Well it kind of is. You would be surprised however, how often people don’t think to do this when they are faced with a challenge within their organisation.

Ask and ye shall receive

In my work as a service designer, a large part of what I do is about asking people questions and listening to their answers. Sometimes it’s asking a customer about their experience of a service. Other times it might be asking a staff member about what is enabling them or challenging them in doing their job. I do this in all kinds of different ways, but at the end of the day the premise is the same.

It never ceases to amaze me the richness and depth you can find out about a problem or situation by asking the right questions. And if you’re not sure about what the right question is, better to ask something than nothing at all.

Once upon a time, a long time ago I worked in a call centre. It was a rather soul destroying job. I like to describe it as being chained to a desk via headphone (we didn’t have those fancy cordless ones back then.) The call centre was quite the revolving door of old staff leaving and new staff coming in. Management seemed to struggle terribly with this problem, but not once did they come to staff – the people with whom the problem lay – and ask them about the situation.

Any number of questions could have given them some kind of insight. Do you like your job? Why or why not? Tell me how you feel about coming to work? Why? What could we do to make your job more enjoyable? What is the top reason you would want to leave your job? What makes your job difficult/easy?

These are not hard questions to think of. I came up with them in 30 seconds. While I’d advise putting a little more rigour into what questions you should ask than this, I can assure you these would have sufficed to give my employer some rich information to work with.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Asking the question is the first and very important step. Without it you are nowhere. If you don’t pay attention and really listen to the answer however, you might as well not have asked the question at all. What does the question matter if you don’t hear (I mean really heard) the response?

I think this is often the hardest part for most organisations. It is easy to think you are listening by having merely asked the questions, but this is far from true. I have often been reminded of this when completing customer or employee surveys.

Each time I contact my hosting provider, I am asked afterwards to complete a small questionnaire about my experience. My satisfaction scores have been dropping each time. The detail I’ve provided and questions I’ve asked in the comments box have never been addressed. It is clear my hosting company is asking without listening.

The problem of asking without listening is twofold:

  1. You don’t get the benefit of the answer
  2. You really annoy (to put it mildly) the person who’s taken time out of their day to answer your question.

This second point is a doozy.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re talking to someone face to face, they ask you a question and as you start to answer their eyes glaze over? You can tell they are thinking about their weekend or what they’re going to have for dinner and it’s clear they are not really interested in you or your response. Doesn’t feel great right?

I’ve experienced the equivalent of this with employee satisfaction surveys. (Don’t get me started on this topic; it’s something I’ve seen done badly on so many occasions). You go through the standard questions, which are often clearly designed to get the answer the company wants. You finally get to the bit at the end that asks if there’s anything else you would like to add.

It’s the first time you have been allowed to really express your feelings. Not how you feel on a scale of Not Satisfied to Very Satisfied, but the ‘why’ that actually brings meaning and depth to your situation. You take the time to give a well thought out, detailed response. You might say some fairly poignant stuff. You wait eagerly to see what steps the company takes with your feedback (and the feedback of your colleagues). Then what happens?

Absolutely nothing. Your feedback has seemingly fallen on deaf ears. You wonder if anyone actually read it. Later your company releases the results of the survey and everything is peachy. The statistics showed things are looking good. But what about the comments? It seems no one was listening.

I want some action. 

The above story illustrates something very important about listening. Its value is not in the listening itself, but in the action that is taken regarding what you have heard.

Ok, so I’ll admit the action step might not be that easy. Let’s call it the not so simple cousin step to steps one and two. If you’ve done a good job at questioning and listening however, you should have most of what you need to send you in the right direction.

Even if what you have learned seems complicated or a huge task to address, begin with baby steps. Trying something is better than nothing and if you get stuck, go back and repeat steps one and two. Reach out. Learn. The more you question and listen, the more you will have to work with.

If you would like to learn more about how service design can help you question, listen and act to address a challenge in your organisation, please get in touch