Are You Observing or Merely Watching?

Successful innovators always have their observation skills turned on high. They realize that watching the world around them—people, companies, products and technologies—is not an “aha” moment but rather a daily discipline of seeing something for the first time, even if you’ve seen it many times before.

Clay Christensen suggests true observers are more successful at figuring out jobs to be done and finding better ways to do them when they are actively watching customers to see what products they hire to do which jobs, looking for surprises or anomalies, and actively seeking opportunities to observe in a new environment.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Inc., asserts “that you have to consciously be looking for surprises—the unexpected—because they are typically lost as our minds conform what we see to fit our preexisting beliefs.” To battle that tendency, Cook says that Apple teaches its people to ask these two questions as they observe.

First, what is surprising? And second, what is different from what you expected? He states, “That’s where true learning and innovation starts.”

Have you not observed in your own life that when you are in a new environment—new city, new country, new client office—you observe even more intensely what is happening around you? How often do you schedule time in your month to just take a week getting lost every day in an exploratory journey to observe something unexpected?

Christensen, in his book The Innovator’s DNA, and the instructors at IDEO suggest when you place yourself in a new environment, you become more of an anthropologist, seeking to understand things that prompt behavior—physical things, verbal things, visual things; interesting adaptions of existing products that may point to a better solution and patterns that suggest the things about which people really care.

Your power of observation—your listening skills and your ability to read nonverbal cues—gets a lot better. There are so many subtle things to read, understand and react to when we are disciplined to look for them.

Again, from The Innovator’s DNA:

“All of us are watchers—of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway—but few are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing.”

Acting on autopilot in everyday life automatically starves the brain’s creative capacity. Observation has the power to transform companies and industries. Effective observation requires putting yourself in new environments. It involves watching customers to see the products and services they hire to help them do their jobs. It involves looking for workarounds—partial or incomplete solutions—that potential customers use to do those jobs. And it involves looking for surprises or anomalies that might provide unexpected insights. As observers identify workarounds and anomalies, digging deep to understand them, they increase their odds of uncovering an innovative solution to the problems they identify. We encourage you to develop and hone your observation skills and, in so doing, discover how they can be a game changer for you and your company.

Are you observing or just watching?