Innovation starts with Observation

The graveyards of companies-that-almost-were are littered with great products that didn't solve a real problem.

Innovation, contrary to popular myth, isn't the product of a stroke of genius or a bolt of inspiration. True innovation comes as a byproduct of thoughtful experimentation, and at the heart of any good experiment is a quality observation.

What's an observation?

Hold on... how is observation the heart of a good experiment? Doesn't observation just happen by default? If my eyes are open, then I'm observing, right? What's the difference between merely seeing what's in front of me and observing? The first answer to that is observation is active, where mere sight is passive. While observing you adopt a heightened state of awareness or vigilance—looking at everything without explicitly looking for anything.

Google defines the word observe as "To notice something and register it as significant." I love this definition. Based on this definition you can split an observation into two parts—"to notice something" and "to register it as significant."

"Observe: To notice or perceive something and register it as significant." – Google

Focus on what matters.

To notice much of anything you have to define what it is you want to be looking at—the scope of your observation. That is to ask, what are the things that are pertinent to the types of experiments you might undertake or fields you might improve. If you are looking to improve workplace furniture, for instance, it wouldn't be helpful to look at the efficacy of your email system.

Once you have clearly defined the scope of your observations, it's important to understand that observation comes in two forms, what I like to call seeing and hearing. Seeing and hearing are just the ways I use to help me remember the distinction between Primary Observation and Secondary Observation.

Primary Observation, is when you see an observation for yourself, or when you come to an awareness of the observation on your own. Secondary Observation, is when someone else brings an occurrence to your attention, or you hear about it from another source.

Both forms of observation are critical to knowing all your opportunities to innovate, but often it is through Secondary Observation that you will find the most profound insights. By empowering people who are a step removed from your work process, you are more likely to be made aware of observations you would have otherwise overlooked.

However, for others to be able to alert you to these observations, you have to be on the same page about what is important in the first place.

Clearly define significance.

The second part of the definition of "observe" is to register what you've noticed as significant. In order to do that for yourself, and especially if you expect to receive observations from others, you need to clearly define what makes something significant. Think about what things are of strategic importance to you, and share those things with others. By being clear and explicit about the KPIs you are tracking, your strategic priorities, and your team's goals you can maintain a level of context that helps yield rich insights.

In that way, making quality observations isn't that different than forecasting, and I think renowned futurist and forecaster, Paul Saffo, said it best in his article for the Harvard Business Review:

"At the end of the day, [observation] is nothing more (nor less) than the systematic and disciplined application of common sense. It is the exercise of your own common sense that will allow you to assess the quality of the [observations] given to you—and to properly identify the opportunities and risks they present."

I highly encourage people to not only take the time to articulate this evaluation criteria well, but also to post it somewhere nearby in order to keep it present in the minds of yourself and your coworkers. Creating this kind of heads-up display of what's important keeps those goals and metrics closer in mind for you and your team, as well as signals to others how to make appropriate observations.

Doorway to the future.

Once you have clearly defined the scope of your observations, named your evaluation criteria, and shared these with those around you, opportunities to improve will start popping up everywhere. Choose one to focus on and formalize it into a solid problem statement and the stage will be set to create real and impactful innovations.

Just remember, innovation isn't about creating things that make people go "oooooooh," and it's not the newest gadget you've been sharing on your facebook page. Innovation is messy, disruptive, challenging, and is an investment of time, money and everyone's energy. Innovation isn't worth doing unless it produces a measurable improvement to the way you work. That's how that investment is repaid. And the innovations which have repaid companies with the best dividends started with an insightful observation.

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