Powers of Observation, Maybe Not So Elementary…But Essential!

‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.’ Sherlock Holmes -A Scandal in Bohemia

I was in line at Starbucks one morning and witnessed a team of Starbucks execs talking about the store. My guess is that it was a regional manager working with a couple of new store managers. The leader asked his colleagues “what do you see?” Over the next several minutes his colleagues identified several things that stood out as either positive or negative. One saw display racks that were in need of attention, another noticed the rapport of the drive-thru attendant. Over the course of about 5 minutes a whole list was generated.

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, and especially enjoy the BBC’s modern-day adaptations of familiar Holmes & Watson cases and the new CBS series Elementary. Although fictional, Sherlock Holmes makes me think. I wonder what clues are right in front of me that I miss for lack of keen observation. Short of carrying around a magnifying glass and a handy side-kick, what can I do to hone my powers of observation to solve perplexing riddles in my workplace?

Our powers of observation seem a bit rusty these days. With smartphones stuck in our palms we barely look up to see where we are going, much less what is really happening around us. We enter the workplace and often go straight to another screen. In meetings we multitask and doodle, missing the world of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that could unleash piles of possibility.

We need to learn to look beyond the headline, below the surface, behind the curtain. We need to develop our powers of observation and become active participants in the world around us. We need to become performance sleuths, investigators of management mysteries, and hounds on the trail of opportunity.

Here are a few ideas to prime the pump of observation:

  1. Stop. When you enter a room or start on a task, pause for a minute and look around. What do you see? Who is there and what mood do you sense? What are the artifacts that define the space and set the tone? What clues, warnings, or heralds of hope are present in the room?
  2. Use your five senses. We initially take in information using the senses of taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. Go through the senses and take note of things that come to mind. Maybe you can’t identify something for all five senses, but try. The process may unlock new ways of seeing things.
  3. Tap into intuition. Beyond our senses lies intuition, that internal feeling that is wrapped in emotion and potential. While our senses tell us what is, our intuition tells us what might be, what could be. As you observe your surroundings, relationships, and patterns of behavior, listen to your “sixth sense” that wants you to consider something more abstract.
  4. Look for patterns. As you go about your day, write down your routine. What habits are present? What do you do without thinking? What patterns exist in your interactions with others?
  5. Shift. Try doing something different and notice how you and those around you react. Is the shift embraced or resisted? Does it lead to further observations about how engrained behaviors and mindsets have led to particular outcomes?
  6. Ask Questions. Dig beneath the surface. Ask new questions – ones that haven’t been asked before. Think like a detective, but with a positive spin. Look for areas where things are better than expected and ask, “how did we get here? How did this great thing happen?”
  7. Lead others. As you gain experience in picking up clues, identifying limiting behaviors, and seeing new possibilities, teach others to do the same. See what happens when you start a meeting by asking everyone to identify what they see.

I secretly long to be like Sherlock Holmes, without the peculiarly irritating personality quirks. I want to solve cases that have perplexed and debilitated organizations. Professor Moriarty is Holmes’ nemesis – the equally smart mastermind who keeps the sleuth on his toes. Moriarty is the deviant to Holmes’ positive deviance. While not always personified, and typically not intentional, our workplaces are staffed with Moriarty’s and we must develop our powers of observation to expose and eradicate them.

Sherlock Holmes

Developing Curiosity with Purpose

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, but It Could Mean Living With Purpose for You and Me

Most of us are curious about something from time to time. We turn the page, peek behind the curtain, or ask the question to give us a glimpse into something we are intrigued by. A lot of the time we have a random curiosity about things that don’t really matter. But putting curiosity to work for us can reveal purpose.

Blind curiosity can lead a cat, or a person, into dangerous territory. Beast or boy can follow a rat and quickly find himself the prey. But curiosity with a purpose, or intentional curiosity, can lead to great discoveries.

The word “curiosity” comes from the Latin “curiositatem,” meaning “desire of knowledge, inquisitiveness.”

Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

There is a big difference between random curiosity and purposeful curiosity. Undirected, our curiosity may be entertaining, interesting, even educational. But when we intentionally guide our curiosity toward a particular end, by focusing our questioning along a special path, we can benefit greatly.

I apply this principle of purposeful curiosity to my work in human performance improvement. I become a performance sleuth, looking for clues like Sherlock Holmes, trying to see the barriers and signs that no one else sees. Intentional curiosity about the system as a whole brings into focus issues that may normally be overlooked.

Intentional curiosity works best when we start at a thirty thousand foot view, then begin to zoom in to specific things through meaningful questions. A well-known technique that can be applied is the “5 Whys” which, as the name implies, consists of asking a series of why questions to uncover the source of a problem, or the heart of an opportunity.

Here’s a simple example of the 5 whys in action:

  1. Why did I lose my job? Because the company had too many employees.
  2. Why did the company have too many employees? Because they lost business during the recession.
  3. Why did they lose business during the recession? Because customers had less discretionary income.
  4. Why did customers have less discretionary income? Because they didn’t save enough when times were better.
  5. Why didn’t they save when times were better? Because they didn’t imagine that the economy could get this bad.

There are, of course, many possible answers to each question, so you can explore those possibilities and test various hypotheses to see how valid they are. Still curious about the Five Whys? Visit MindTools.com for more details.

Another great tool to use is appreciative inquiry, which leads you down a positive path toward a desired future built around a positive core.  In other words, you come up with a series of questions that guide your thinking around what has been successful, meaningful and life-giving in the past. By digging into the positive core, you can identify what you want to see more of, what you want to move toward in the future.  A central question to get you started in appreciative inquiry is:

 “It’s five years in the future; you go to work and discover that your life is the way you always wished it would be.  You are experiencing success in your job, feeling fulfilled and clearly in your “sweet spot.” Your family life is energizing, your home a place of peace and joy. You have meaningful friendships and have found a place to serve in the community that gives you a sense of giving back.” Now, describe how you got there. What specific things did you do to achieve this ideal life?

More samples of AI questions for a variety of applications can be found at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Whatever tool(s) you choose to aid you in you in applying intentionally curiosity, be sure to identify your purpose and ask “what’s possible?” Intentional curiosity is ultimately about moving you toward your goals, helping you make positive progress in some area of your life. Being intentionally curious will lead you to useful discoveries that help you bust through walls that have hemmed you in. You never know, there just may be a great prize behind that door that you’re nervous about opening!

Go ahead…take a peek!

Recommended Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day
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