Observing – the Mother of All Discovery Skills

Observing - the Mother of All Discovery SkillsObserving is a critical skill for people willing to increase their innovation capability. It is critical because observing customers will reveal behavior 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 realized 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-judgmental attitude: people are doing what they do for a reason even if it seems strange.
  • Refrain from categorizing the data: we need to see not only the whole picture but also the wholeness of the picture. Categorizing 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 generalize their experience into “typicals” people tend to idealize 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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Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on www.innovToday.com and on twitter @innovToday.

Yann Cramer




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