How many times a day do you notice something?
My grandfather was a successful Mexican entrepreneur in his time, he designed bags for women and was also an interior designer. I was 7 seven years old when I started hanging out with my grandfather and one thing I remember about him is that he had deep empathy for people (my grandparents had a room in their house where they would give low-means people shelter for a few days).
On the weekends he would take me to the arcade in the biggest plaza in Tijuana, after a good round of playing he’d get us some ice cream and we would sit on a bench and just watch people (I still do this). A few years before his passing while engaged in a ‘life lessons from grandfather to grandson’ conversation he revealed to me that when we sat on the bench he was specifically watching women with purses because he was looking for ways to improve his bag designs, he was hunting for insights.
This is a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs, budding innovators, managers and executives.
As we’ve discovered, one of the distinct skills of an innovator is the ability to observe. My grandfather did this diligently and I got to experience it first hand. He always carried a mid sized notebook and a pencil where he wrote notes or drew what he observed, and then we would drive back to his workshop and like a mad scientist he would draw, add, remove, increase, decrease things on his bag designs.
Creative thought is about looking at what everyone else has looked at and seeing something new. Looking is not the same as observing. We all look at things, the same things and can talk about them on a superficial level. Observing is making distinctions, noticing things, seeing something that’s not obvious.
Looking at a car from the outside is not the same as seeing it from the inside. From the outside you see windows, color, metal, tires and bolts; you see what’s obvious to everyone else. From the inside you see valves, tubes, cam shafts, pistons, spark plugs, etc and you get a deep understanding of how the car works, how it moves and why you’ve been riding in one of these machines since you were born.
The lesson is very clear: If we are to spot new opportunities for innovation, such as improving a process, revamping the user experience on website or the customer experience in a retail store we must practice ‘intense observation’ because new insights are found beyond the obvious.
Observing the world is fun
If you’re not a keen observer but want to improve your ability to make distinctions, there are infinite ways to get started. Here are a few tips to get you going:
- Go to a park on a Sunday and hang out near a place where different families are and try to identify what makes each family different, who’s the leader of the family and then compare this with your own family.
- In the same park go to where people are playing some sport, soccer, volleyball or basketball and try to identify who the best player is and why. What makes him different from the other players and what are the differences between the other players.
While doing this it’s very important to turn off your ears. Don’t listen to conversations and don’t interview people, just watch. You’re trying to see anew, not the same and so we must control the urge to use our other senses. You’ll also notice that once you do this you’ll instinctively become more curious about these people because you’ll have thoughts in your head that need an answer.
Let me know how it goes, I love listening to observations.