Home > For the sailors: Hone your innovation skills > Observing: the mother of discovery skills

Observing: the mother of discovery skills

Observing is a critical skill for people willing to increase their innovation capability. It is critical because observing customers will reveal behaviour patterns that they have unknowingly developed to compensate for some inconvenience that could be removed or for some unmet need to could be addressed more fully. Surveys and focus groups will reveal improvement opportunities that customers are conscious of – likely to lead to incremental innovation – as opposed to improvement opportunities that they haven’t even realised and are the ones most likely to generate breakthrough innovation.

Yet, for some it can be one of the most difficult skill to master as it is calls for “switching off” their left brain – the analytical part – which they have overdeveloped at school and in the corporate world. Here are some observation principles to strive for:

  • Practice beginner’s mind: set aside prior knowledge to approach the scene with a complete open mind – as if everything in it was a first-time discovery.
  • Absorb the observations with a non-judgemental attitude: people are doing what they do for a reason even if it seems strange.
  • Refrain from categorising the data: we need to see not only the whole picture but also the wholeness of the picture. Categorising data can be a barrier to connecting the dots.
  • Probe by asking questions that focus on the specifics. When people answer with “typicals”, gently bring them back to a specific case. When they generalise their experience into “typicals” people tend to idealise their answers and unconsciously eliminate the anomalies, which are precisely what the observer wants to notice and understand.


“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Marcel Proust

“Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.” Albert Szent-György


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