How to do a listening tour

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with first-year FUSE Fellow Amanda Soskin and it reminded me of what I felt like in your shoes last year.  Four weeks into the Fellowship, my head was spinning and I was struggling to make sense of all the information I had to absorb.  Over the first four months, I did 120 interviews. The Moleskine notebook I used for interview notes took only six weeks to fill – they usually last six months. It was a real struggle to find a rhythm and a process to make sense of everything.  Here’s a few things that helped me:

Create an interview process.  I made a list of questions that I tried to ask everyone. They ranged from questions about the strategy of the district to examples of innovation to what skills and mindsets students need to be successful. I tried to start with the same questions for everyone to establish a baseline. Then I would go back and revisit things I found to be curious.

Process right afterwards.  I took a few minutes after every interview to fill in the notes I took with anything that I might’ve missed. I also used a framework from the design school called “I like, I wish, I wonder if…”. After every interview, I would go back through my notes with four different colors and mark things that I really liked from the interview, things that I really didn’t like, and things that made me wonder if something that they said could be applied in a new and different way.  I used a fourth color for things I found utterly surprising – by far the largest category.  

Find more leads from your existing leads.   After every interview, I asked the person with whom I was speaking for three more names of people I should speak with. I figured that by the time I was being referred back to people that I had already spoken to (and hearing the same things), I was done.

Find a rhythm that works.  By the fourth week, I finally settled on about eight new interviews a week. It took me a while to realize that my sponsors were really paying me to think-not just gather information. And if that was the case, I really did need to think.  So I started working from home on Thursdays and spending the day reviewing my notes, writing, researching things I found and setting up the next week. This was a big breakthrough.  Eight seemed to be the number I could absorb and set up without being overwhelmed.  It’s a reasonable pace-in three months you’ll be at 75 or so. You can scale up or down as needed.

Start writing. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, it helps clarify your thoughts. If you’re going to explain your ideas to somebody else in writing, you need to have the points clear, concise and supported by data. I found this to be the most difficult and frustrating part of the fellowship-and probably the most valuable thing I did.  Because in addition to forcing you to clarify your thoughts, writing and sharing your thoughts helps you find your tribe.   Which leads me to…

Find and build your tribe.   These are the people who believe in what you’re doing and who will help you. They may or may not be in the same department, at the same level or even in city government – they just share a belief.   My tribe included members of the city council, the head of our city Parks and Recreation Department, the County librarian and the Superintendent of our local career technical education partner, just to name a few.   Then, create a way to communicate with your tribe.  This could be a simple as a monthly email that communicates news about your project along with requests for help or direction.  Even better, find a way to bring them together.   My tribe first came together for a prototyping session modeled after the Smallify labs in which we looked out 10 years, envisioned the school system and the partnerships that we wanted, then worked backwards to design them.   Then many of them joined me on a trip to learn about Remake Learning in Pittsburgh – which built relationships that are still yielding collaborations today and led to a second year for me.  

Forming this tribe will be the biggest impact of my fellowship. Five years from now, my report will be buried, the little bets long since forgotten, but the schemes of my tribe are going to be changing the lives of children in Fremont.  

Keep up the good work and call with questions.



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