Maybe Task One for Leaders: First You Look – Then You See

There are some really obvious truths.  I have oft quoted this:  “you are what you think about all day long.” The truth its obvious – what we fill our minds with creates who we are and what we do.

Well here is another obvious truth – what you see is determined by where you look and what you look at. And this oh so obvious truth has profound implications for leaders and what they accomplish.

The television show Undercover Boss would put CEO’s into everyday work situations in their own company.  They would go out in the field, work in the factory, alongside their own employees.  The employees would not know who they were. To a person, the bosses discovered all sorts of things about the work and about their employees that they did not know before.  Why?  They were looking in new places, thus they saw new things, and saw in new ways.

In the terrific Susan Scott book, Fierce Leadership, she calls on leaders to develop “squid eye.”

You need “squid eye” (squid hide among rocks that hide their presence) – you see many things that others cannot and do not see; you are an effective and efficient information gatherer…

For a person new to the task of finding and catching squid, this is a very difficult skill to master.  Squid hide very well, and you have to look in between the nooks and crannies to see the little tell-tale signs that squid are present.  She uses this metaphor to argue that a key task for every leader is to simply learn to look at people, processes, situations, much more carefully – look well enough to see what others miss.

In The Art of Innovation:  (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm), Tom Kelley describes the practice of “observing” that IDEO follows on all projects for all clients.  I remember in one instance they were hired to design a new chair that would be more comfortable for women in the workplace.  Their design team members literally crawled around on the floor at the office, looking at ways women sat in chairs.  One discovery:  many women were using the yellow pages as foot rests, leading to new design challenges.

Here are some quotes from the book, giving us a little insight into this practice:

In many parts of your life, you go through steps so mechanically, so unconsciously…  When you’re off your own beaten path, however, you are more open to discovery:  when you travel, especially overseas; when you rent an unfamiliar car; when you try a new sport or experience a new activity.  At those times, you are more open to ask childlike “Why?” and “Why not?” questions that lead to innovation.

By studying people of all ages, shapes, cultures, and sizes we’ve learned that the best products embrace people’s differences.

You don’t just send your researchers out to do research and your designers to do design.  You send your designers with researchers to do design and vice versa.

Finding the right people (to observe) helps.

Observe real people in real life situations to find out what makes them tick…
Visualize new to the world concepts and the customers who will use them.
Innovation begins with an eye: Inspiration by observation…
Make small observations, which lead to small improvements — keep that process up continuously, and you will find yourself at the head of the pack…

And though where you look “from” matters, just actually, simply looking really matters.  In the Vaclev Havel speech I quoted on this site yesterday, delivered as he assumed the presidency of his country, he stated:

Allow me a small personal observation. When I flew recently to Bratislava, I found some time during discussions to look out of the plane window. I saw the industrial complex of Slovnaft chemical factory and the giant Petr’alka housing estate right behind it. The view was enough for me to understand that for decades our statesmen and political leaders did not look or did not want to look out of the windows of their planes. No study of statistics available to me would enable me to understand faster and better the situation in which we find ourselves.

And then he describes what he intends for his presidency:

To be a president who will not only look out of the windows of his airplane but who, first and foremost, will always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.

Here are some lessons/reminders for leaders:

1.  Actually look – at people, at processes, at products.  (Think design, and the brilliance of Steve Jobs and Apple).

2.  Look at people and products where they are actually used.  Look when people don’t know you are looking.  Simply observe.

Most of all, remember this:  First You Look – Then You See.

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