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seeing things that arn't there
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How observant are we?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Last weekend, I was reminded of a pattern in a fictional detective’s approach (possibly Poirot, but I’m not certain, anyone know?) who often commented on the insights gained from seeing not only the things that were in front of you, but, often more importantly, the things that weren’t there at all.

It was my daughter’s birthday, and, along with some friends, she was following a fairy trail through Thorp Perrow Arboretum (Thorp Perrow). The final clue on the TV characters’ section was “who are the two Mr Men you can see in the tree?”. Mr Tickle was up in the tree, bright orange dangling there, but most people were deciding that the other one had fallen out of the tree. Astonishingly quickly, one of my daughter’s friends said “it’s Mr Tickle and Mr Invisible”. I’ll admit to not knowing that there was such a thing, but I was very impressed.

On many of the management training courses we run, noticing things, and becoming more observant, end up as critical aspects of success. It can be tough, particularly under pressure, to notice the detail, notice the small things that can make the difference, so noticing the missing things can be even harder. So how do we train this?

Coaching is one area where noticing things is particularly critical. For a few years now, I’ve been running a non-directive coaching course for a very large company, and we spend an awful lot of time encouraging people to ask others “what did you notice” and “tell me more about it”. The reason for this is to increase the level of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic awareness to increase the total amount of information that is consciously taken in.

As another example, when using NLP-based eye movement, tonality and body language analysis, it’s the little things that generally give the greatest indications of how information is being processed - the small flicker of the eyes upwards during the “...er” part of people’s communication, or the little hand gestures that suggest a gut feeling or a distant image.

It does take time, and considerable focus and effort on the part of the delegates on our training courses to raise their levels of awareness in this way. But it some respects, this is the simple part - becoming more aware of the things that are there anyway. For me, the advanced challenge in raising conscious awareness is in noticing absence.

There are two significant training techniques that we use in order to begin the process of exploring the potential for helping people notice the things that aren’t there.

The first technique is to use the easier bit of observation to help. Observation in this context is about taking notice of the underlying assumptions that narrow our perspectives on things. In the example of Mr Invisible, the underlying assumption amongst the majority of adults (myself included) was that the “missing” character had been blown out of the tree, picked up by someone and removed. By becoming consciously aware of this as an assumption rather than a fact, it is easier to challenge the assumption, generating alternative hypotheses and assessing them for comparative value. Would the people setting up the fairy trail really have left a heavy, unsecured item up in a tree on a windy weekend, and encourage children to stand under them?

The second technique is to scale up the questions that we ask ourselves. Again, the majority of questions being asked around the tree were things such as “where is it” and “where can it have gone”? There is an implied assumption in these questions that you are looking for something that you is there and you should be able to see.

Upscaling the question to be (at the same time) more specific/accurate and more general, you can get to questions such as:

“Why can I not see another Mr Men”?

“What could stop me from seeing another Mr Men”?

It is far easier to answer these questions with “because he’s invisible” than is would be to give that answer to the question “where is the other Mr Men”.

Tight and accurate definitions of complex situations in business can help enormously to both provide focus and to broaden understanding, leading to better decisions and smarter approaches. Cascading down from that to the complexity underneath then creates a richer picture and a wider range of choices, whilst ensuring that they still tie into the original definition. For example:

1: The Mr Men character is there, but I can’t see him

2: The Mr Men character isn’t there, so I can’t see him

One of those two must be correct, but by defining both and exploring both, a much more varied range of possibilities is created.


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