Innovation Tools: Observation

By September 26, 2014 Career, Skills 2 Comments

Following on from my last post in which I cited Dr. Strohecker’s Intuitive Tools for Innovative Thinking, I wanted to spend some time considering how these tools can be utilised in the various roles I use to define my work – testing, consulting and leading.

First on the list is observation.

What I’m basically looking for by improving my observational skills is the knowledge “that comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us.” (Wilfred Trotter). I’m trying to see things in a new or enlightened way. I’m trying to observe them in a way that might enable me to pattern match or, put things together which may not normally belong together.

Creativity is just connecting things. – Steve Jobs

William Beveridge has much to say about the observational toolkit in his 1957 book, The Art of Scientific Investigation. In it he describes how observation is basically a two-pronged activity; there is a sense-perceptual element (normally visual although this could utilise other senses instead or as well) and there is a mental element, which can be conscious, unconscious (often referred to as intuition) or a mixture of the two.

Beveridge also notes that there are two modes of observation (from Claude Bernard):

  1. Spontaneous or passive observations which take place unexpectedly.
  2. Induced or active observations which are carried out deliberately.

Although both modes can be useful when trying to be more creative, it’s the second, more deliberate mode of observation that I’m particularly interested in, since my intention is to try to increase my creativity and maintain a constant flow, rather than relying on more random observations which may not actually occur for periods of time.

In order then to become a more effective observer, I did some research and identified the following starting points:

Improving your observation skills

  1. Stop multitasking. “Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course.” – Maria Konnikova
  2. Learn to focus. Observation isn’t just about letting anything and everything enter your visual field. Understanding upon what and where to focus your attention is important.
  3. Be selective. Our observations will result in “brain furniture” (Sherlock Holmes) that will ultimately shape and filter our perceptions. Really look and apply thought to your study. What you see and what you think about it will form the basis of future observations, so be sure to take in as much of the picture as you can, noting the details you believe to be important and try to contextualise them by making your observation from different perspectives/
  4. Understand your biases. Focusing on one thing at the expense of others can result in attentional blindness. There are plenty more to be aware of too. Understanding how your brain works will help you steer clear of common pitfalls.
  5. Don’t judge. Don’t let thought intrude between you and the object of your attention. When you see, for example, a sunset and say to yourself “how beautiful”, you are labelling and categorising your mental image. You’re not immersed in it and as a result will see only a fraction of what you might have otherwise seen.
  6. Record it. After carrying out an observation, write, draw or otherwise record what you have seen. Get into the habit of doing so and, in addition to [5] above do it without judging yourself or your work. Habitually recording your observations should become a confidence boosting habit.
  7. Reflect. In addition to recording what you’ve seen, think about what you want to remember about it, bearing in mind point [3]. Begin to join the dots by making connections between previous observations and your new one. Hopefully over time, new thoughts, connections and insights begin to emerge.

“How do I apply this?” you’re probably wondering. Well, in the same way as Beveridge identified the perceptual and mental elements of observation, I think the bullets above come down to:

  • Making observations – getting into and maintaining observational flow (1-5)
  • Recording and reflecting – extracting meaningful information from your observations (6 & 7)

I tried to think about how I do or could implement some of the points from a testing, consulting, leadership capabilities perspective:

 DoingCould do better
Making observationsEliminate distractions during test execution and meetings.

Shut down email occasionally.


Note-taking and modelling during meetings or testing to maintain focus.

Use of tooling (e.g. web developer tools, proxies, IDE’s etc) can help with zooming-in or out of (selecting) particular areas of the system

Using a session based testing approach with clear charters or missions to provide clear direction.

There’s lots of great psychology material that can help with understanding ones brain and managing biases - the You Are Not so Smart podcast is a particular favourite of mine.

Non-violent communication helps me not to be judgemental.
Eliminating my three children probably ain’t going to happen.

Web distractions are a constant threat - having open only the windows that are absolutely required would be good.

Practicing mindfulness or some other form of meditation is a good way to learn deep focus.

Thinking about thinking is notoriously difficult. My brain has lots of old furniture that needs clearing out. Coaching can help with this
Recording and reflectingI use Evernote for pretty much everything these days, including all of my notes during testing, meeting note, notes from books I’m reading, blog posts I’m writing, web cuttings etc.

Reflections are usually by way of blog posts.
Recording everything digitally is arguably not great for the brains creative juices. Pen and paper activates different areas of the brain.

I don’t draw or model as much as I would like. When I do model it tends to be on a computer. Drawing and modelling on paper would probably release a different, possibly better creative energy.

Blog posts are better than nothing, but they’re also very public and as a result suffer because they need to show me in the best light. Maintaining a journal is private so reflections can be more candid.

I’m not very good at seeing patterns or identifying links between my observations. Learning how to do this better would certainly be of great benefit. I’ll hopefully identify some ways to do this in a subsequent pattern matching post.

What do you think about observation as a tool for innovating? Do you identify with some of my successes and failures above? Do you have some thoughts of your own to share? If you do, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Watch out for my next innovation tools post, Imaging.

- Simon

P.S If you're interested in learning more about performance testing, checkout my Performance Testing 101 course here.


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