Powers of Observation

by Dan Woychick

When our family goes to a restaurant, occasionally we will play a game called “Powers of Observation.” Everyone at the table gets a couple minutes to look around them, soaking in the details of their surroundings. The trick is, you don’t know what you’re looking for, or what may potentially be important to know.

After the time is up, each person in turn asks questions of the group: How many people in the restaurant are wearing hats? What color is the menu on the wall behind the counter? What is the name of the store across the street? It’s a good way to keep occupied while waiting for the food to arrive. It also points out the importance of paying attention.

Children offer parents the luxury of a distinctly different point of view. Whether it’s colored by a fertile imagination or a relative proximity to the ground, kids open our eyes to new ways of seeing and thinking. Similarly, when traveling, we see things with a fresh perspective.

As I’m currently into the second week of a long-planned and lengthy sabbatical, it’s occurred to me how valuable that fresh perspective can be for any person or organization. What are we missing simply because we’ve become accustomed to our surroundings?

Is it possible to simulate the sensation of being a newcomer – to look at old things with new eyes? When I’m not traveling, these are a few of the techniques I use:

Look in new places
When you’re immersed in a problem, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision. As a designer, I don’t seek ideas by looking at other designs. I let my eyes and my subconscious go to work for me – either by physically changing locations or paging through an unrelated book or magazine. With some preparation, the human brain is remarkably good at making new connections.

Word association
In any business, it’s important to be asking the right questions. But what happens if the same old answers are no longer working? For years I’ve broken down that pesky question into a few key words, then done a simple word association exercise with each one. The key is to quiet the self-editor – that little voice inside your head that delights in telling you an answer doesn’t fit or it’s silly or wrong.

With practice, each word leads to another and another in rapid succession – the faster the better. When your page is full, circle a few of the most promising words. Additionally, circle the ones that seem to make no sense at all. Upon deeper reflection, it’s often these words that lead to the freshest ideas.

Just ask
Has our customer changed? Is our website intuitive? Do these pants make me look fat? Often, we either don’t know (or don’t want to know) answers that can have a major impact on our decisions. Research seems like such an imposing, time-consuming and expensive word, but heading blindly down the same old path has its own costs.

Cultivate a personal advisory board. Friends and colleagues can provide invaluable perspective. Launching quick online surveys is another way to expand your knowledge. Or, you can always hire a consultant to lead your team to new insights.

Details matter in any business pursuit, but it’s easy to let our attention wander. That’s when it’s time to recapture the powers of observation that lead to discovery. As the Japanese poet Bashō once noted: Nothing is worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes.

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