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

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