Whispers to Roars: Practical Steps to Amplify Quiet Voices at Work

This guide offers practical steps for business leaders to engage quieter team members, foster innovation, and build a more inclusive culture. It ends with a memoir about John Olson (R.I.P.)


3/10/20244 min read

In a world teeming with corporate buzzwords and productivity hacks, the quest to amplify the quieter voices in our workplaces is more than just a noble pursuit—it's a strategic imperative. As someone who's navigated the tumultuous seas of various organizational cultures, I've gleaned some not-so-secret secrets on how to transform your team's dynamics for the better. Let's cut through the fluff and dive into a practical, albeit slightly irreverent, guide to getting the best out of your team, including those who've turned the art of flying under the radar into a professional sport.

1. Start Your Day the Right Way: The Epiphany Exchange

Before you launch into the day's or week's agenda with the zeal of a caffeine-fueled preacher, pause. Remember that while you were busy dreaming about spreadsheets, your team might have been struck by lightning bolts of brilliance. Kick off your meetings by tapping into these potential epiphanies. Ask, "What shower thought had you questioning the meaning of life or at least our current project?" This not only gets everyone's gears grinding but also makes it clear that all thoughts, no matter how seemingly outlandish, are welcome here.

2. The Golden Rules of Meetings: It's Not a Free-For-All

Meetings are not open mic nights. To avoid them turning into a circus act that would put most reality TV to shame, establish clear rules. Key among these is defining specific outcomes. What decision needs to be made? What options are we looking at? This isn't about putting creativity in a straitjacket; it's about giving the meeting a reason for being.

3. The Working Meeting: Your Plan B Doesn't Have to Suck

So, you've hit a snag. The work that was supposed to be done is, well, not. Enter the working meeting—a concept as thrilling as its name suggests. Instead of staring blankly at each other or rehashing what was said last time, switch gears. Use this time to tackle the tasks that are holding you back. Think of it as a productive pit stop that gets everyone back on track, not a detour into the land of eternal meetings.

4. Service Design: The Unsung Hero of Innovation

Imagine a world where meetings are more than just talk. That's the promise of service design, a methodology that emphasizes doing over discussing. It's about creating tangible outcomes through collaborative work, not just verbal volleyball. By integrating service design into your workflow, you're not only giving voice to the quiet ones but also turning their ideas into actionable insights.

5. Cultivating Culture: No Room for the Boys' Club

Last but certainly not least, let's talk culture. A truly inclusive environment goes beyond just having a token "casual Friday." It's about ensuring that no "boys' club" or any other exclusionary group dynamics take root. This means fostering a culture where curiosity, respect, and genuine inclusion are the norms, not the exceptions. Where every voice, no matter how soft, is not only heard but valued.

Conclusion: A John Olson Story (R.I.P.)

As we wrap up this guide with practical steps and somewhat cheeky advice on how to empower the quieter voices within our organizations, I'd like to leave you with a very personal story. This story revolves around a man who profoundly influenced not just the trajectory of a company but also the lives of those who worked within it: John Olson, the visionary founder of Olson & Company, later acquired by ICF. John's legacy is one of innovation, leadership, and an unyielding belief in the potential of his team.

On a day that would remain etched in my memory, the agency I was part of (OCO) was pulsing with the rebellious spirit that was our brand’s hallmark. At the time, our brand was heavily influenced by a pre-WW2 Russian choir aesthetic, a nod to a revolutionary time. Yet, something within me stirred—a sense that we were outgrowing this identity. Driven by this intuition, I took the leap to remix this distinctive brand song with a beat, morphing it into something entirely new and avant-garde.

John, having just concluded a meeting that would chart a new course for our branding, away from the Russian music we had come to be known by, happened upon this sonic experiment of mine. Without a word about the meeting's outcome or the impending shift in our brand's identity, he asked me to "crank that #%*$ up." As the music filled the room, John climbed the scaffolding near my desk, drawing everyone's attention with his antics high above the ground, celebrating the track I had inadvertently created on the cusp of our brand's evolution.

In that moment, without revealing the strategic pivot just decided upon, John celebrated my creation. He recognized and applauded my alignment with the company's need for a new direction, even before I was aware of it myself. This gesture—a vivid display of leadership and recognition—left a lasting impression on me. It underscored the value of intuition, creativity, and being in sync with the times, traits that John embodied and encouraged in all of us.

John Olson’s passing was a profound loss, and I am still grappling with it. However, this memory serves as a potent reminder of his leadership style: one that valued and celebrated each individual’s contributions, recognizing the currents of change even before they became apparent to all. It wasn't about using the track or adhering to the old brand; it was about acknowledging that, in his team, he had people who were ready to evolve with the company.

In conclusion, as leaders or members of a team, our goal should not just be to listen to the quiet voices but to celebrate the intuition and innovation they bring to the table. Like John, let's climb our metaphorical scaffolding, recognize the forward-thinking efforts of our team, and turn the volume up on those transformative ideas.

Miss you, John, we ARE blessed.