Below is the final installment in our series, Leading by Listening in which we explored multiple facets of listening and its role in organizational leadership.

Somi Kim knows how to listen on a scale that most of us can only wonder at. As Senior Director of Healthcare Solutions at Johnson & Johnson Design, listening and responding to the needs of a diverse set of internal and external stakeholders is central to Somi’s role. She generously agreed to speak with us about the unique insights she has gleaned over the years. Somi shared strategies focused on:

  • Immersing oneself in the customer experience
  • Being innovative about how we listen
  • Being aware of assumptions
  • Engaging in a non-linear process of discovery
  • Harnessing pattern recognition
  • Maintaining a human connection in our high-tech world

Somi’s insights are valuable to leaders in healthcare as well as those in other industries who seek to truly listen to their stakeholders.

Immerse Yourself

Marsha: When your team designs solutions, they need to account for multiple stakeholder needs. In particular, understanding the patient is central to your approach. What are the strategies you use to build this understanding?

Somi: We must develop an empathic understanding of the patient and truly walk in their shoes. We need to be able to envision what matters to them within the larger ecosystem of healthcare. One way is to try to grasp the realities of the patient’s context. For example, what is the patient’s life like culturally, socioeconomically? How do they experience their health systems and health access? You have to ask yourself: “What does their day look like? What is their journey?

Marsha: How do you go about answering such intricate questions?

Somi: The key is to go outside of the meeting room. Go to where everyday life is taking place and try to grasp the dynamics of the systems operating around the individuals we are trying to reach. If we are working on a solution for a resource limited setting, for example, we may need to have an understanding of what it means for there to be no refrigeration, or for people other than trained professional health workers to be administering shots. More broadly, we need a deep awareness of the barriers caused by stigma and fear.

Be Innovative

Marsha: To gain such nuanced understanding must require constant innovation and creativity?

Somi: As a drug manufacturer we cannot engage directly in first-hand ethnographic research, but we can get close to patients through partnerships with research firms and advocacy groups or by listening to conversations on social media. We can pursue novel partnerships—including with competitors—and strengthen connections between the public and private sectors in order to get the data to drive better care experiences.

Beware of Assumptions

Marsha: So, you approach listening to the customer as a holistic and deeply humanizing endeavor. Are there additional insights you can share about this process?

Somi: Be aware of assumptions. We are often in rooms full of experts with incredible credentials and professional experience, but we must not lose sight of the importance of understanding what drives patient decision-making. In many cases, a patient does not make a decision based on understanding hard data, science or clinical outcomes, but rather based on what matters most in their lives. It may be that quality of life outweighs the efficacy of a particular therapy.

For example, when we think about questions of tolerability and the mode of administration, we often view things through the lens of the clinical trial. These trials demonstrated the product to be efficacious and safe. However, we strive to understand whether the real world experience is something the patient can sustain; adherence is a huge issue. We all have examples from our own lives in which we understood the implications of different behaviors and yet chose to do something that wasn’t optimal for our health.

Be Open to Discovery

Marsha: As part of Johnson & Johnson Design, you need to listen to stakeholders within your organization as well.

Somi: Yes, and it goes beyond the design team listening to the organization; we help our business partners apply design thinking when they engage their own stakeholders. Design thinking can challenge one’s comfort zone because it is not a linear process nor is it cut and dried—it is a process of discovery with which you are identifying the questions you want to answer as you go. It requires a new and different type of collaborative listening.

Look for Patterns

Marsha: As part of a design team, you listen to multiple stakeholder viewpoints. How do you integrate all of the input you get?

Somi: In the design group, we need to be able to withstand the vertigo of zooming in and out from the big picture to very granular details. Because design is a bridge function that works across multiple businesses and different functional groups, we often play the role of having the line of sight into potential opportunities to bring things together, avoid duplication and get to more of that capability amplification that we look for as an enterprise.

Marsha: How do you withstand this “vertigo” of moving back and forth between the big picture and the granular level?

Somi: It is really about pattern recognition. I often think of the experience of going to a large outdoor flea market in another country. You are at once scanning the big picture, trying to take it all in, but also beginning to see singular things. You can’t process everything in the same way, you have to be opportunistic and there is serendipity involved, but there is also the skill of being able to sift and sort and to see patterns and translate unexpected juxtapositions into new insights.

Keep it Human

Marsha: How have you seen changing technologies impact your listening processes?

Somi: The media debate over Facebook’s algorithm filtering out Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo is a cautionary tale. We can’t resort to an algorithm to answer everything; we always need to interact through multiple modes. Even in our own company where out of necessity we engage in many more teleconferences, videoconferences, phone calls, email, text – we still need the face-to-face. As human beings we need to be able to listen through more than just sound. The way we communicate in real-time, face-to-face, can never be replaced by even the most sophisticated videoconference.