How to Innovate, Part 1: Observe


May 23, 2023

Every day you think you see the world as it is, but in truth, so much goes on that you’re never even aware of. You mow through a bag of chips while watching a movie and don’t remember the second bite. You drive to work and don’t remember even backing out of the driveway. You put your kids to bed and can’t remember kissing them goodnight. Societies write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the assumption that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them. But that’s not how we operate. The truth is, we’re terrible observers.

In part one of this five-part series on how to innovate, I dive deep on learning to observe our surroundings. Don’t underestimate this step. Usually, our best ideas are hiding right under our noses.

Developing awareness

When we get off the beaten path, even just a little bit, our awareness changes. Travel to a new country—or even a new city—and the details of everything heightens all of your senses. You smell all the smells, hear all the sounds, feel the change in temperature, see how people behave differently, and taste different flavors. Rent a car and drive in Oslo and compare how that feels to driving in Omaha. Play fútbol in Madrid and compare that to football in Mumbai. Eat dinner in Bethlehem and compare that to Buenos Aires.

When you report back to friends and family about your experience, you recreate even the smallest details. What it’s like to circle a roundabout (again) in Europe. Fútbol and football are two completely different sports. And you made sure to eat everything on your plate in Tokyo.

It’s at times like these, when you’re in the midst of something completely unfamiliar, that you’re most likely to go back to those childhood patterns. You pay attention to every detail, watch what’s going on, and pause to take in the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of what you’re experiencing.

Let me explain what I mean.

How to collect dots

Observation is the process of removing blinders and experiencing the world around you with curiosity. Making time to look at the details of your environment heightens your awareness and makes you sensitive to things you’d normally find mundane. It gives meaning to the minutiae.

You may not realize it, but you observe things and connect dots all day long. “Dots” are small specks of observations that you accumulate over time. You see your U2 concert T-shirt, remember Bono is Irish, and decide to get fish and chips for dinner. You get something out of your trunk, see the jumper cables, and remember you need to get batteries for the smoke alarm. Or, on your morning run, you notice a bird adding twigs to a nest and remember you need to clean the gutters.

Every person has the ability to acquire and connect dots. But while everyone does this without realizing it, natural innovators consciously practice it. They understand they have the ability to find inspiration for a great idea in any situation. Henry Ford got the idea for his assembly line from a meatpacking plant. Swiss engineer George de Mestral was inspired to invent Velcro after seeing his dog covered in prickly burrs. And Mercedes-Benz designers found inspiration in the two-door compact car-shaped boxfish for one of its aerodynamic models. These innovators consciously and purposefully connected the dots rather than dismissing experiences as random interactions. Henry Ford knew he was looking for a new process to assemble cars, and he sought out opportunities to learn from other markets and situations. That’s what led him to learn about the meatpacking industry and tour a plant.

As you begin the first step of the Perpetual Innovation process—Observe—you’ll begin curing your blindness by working on situational observation and awareness skills. Learning to observe means learning to pay attention to what you see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. It heightens your awareness of mundane, everyday things because you experience them with a fresh perspective. Success comes when you remove the judgment about what’s important and what’s not. Your goal in learning how to become a better observer is to learn to pay attention with an open mind, collect “dots” through your senses, and begin to stockpile what you experience in the world around you.

Tips for collecting better dots

When you set out to observe the world around you, the more you change up your environment, the better you’ll get. Just like when you step out of your comfort zone when you travel, diverse stimuli raise your awareness. The more diverse the places and situations you put yourself in, the more diverse your observations. Since our goal is to learn how to better connect the dots, I’ll call the observations you collect “dots.”

If you’re going to practice this observation exercise five times in a week, then pick five really different places. Or, if you’re going to do this once a week for the next five months, pick various locations each time. An opera house, a neighborhood basketball court, a university student center, a train station, the back 40 on a farm, or a wax museum. I once spent an hour and a half in a coffee shop in the arrivals area of the Barcelona airport making observations. Then the next day I sat along a marsh in the foothills doing the same thing while my brother went birdwatching.

This may seem boring and tedious, but think about this. For anyone to experience consistent growth, they keep a logbook of their progress. Athletes keep a fitness journal to log how far they ran, when, and in what time. Scientists keep logbooks to monitor their experiments. Pilots keep a written log of the hours they’ve flown. Observation is a skill just like any other. And in order to get better at it, you need to have a written log of your work to refer back to and learn from.

How to observe: four steps

1. Watch. What do people do? What exists? What are the individual ingredients that make up what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell? For example, if you see a man running to catch a bus, how’s he dressed? Is he old, young? Is he sprinting down the street or hobbling? Take note of his jacket, shoes, and pants; the color of his backpack; and the type of haircut he has. Is he wearing glasses? Does he get to the bus stop on time? All of these details will have meaning for your work.

2. List. Get a specific notebook to use for your Observation Journal. It can be as simple as a lined notebook, or you can buy something fancy that makes the time you spend observing the world feel more special. Buy a journal with cartoon characters on the front if that helps bring out the curious child in you. Then, use it to create a running inventory of everything you take in, item by item, sensation by sensation. Cold cement bench. Warm sun on your face. Hot air from the vent. Bright light from the squad car. Smelly dog poo behind the park bench. Sticky leftover ketchup on the fast-food wrapper. The shout of someone trying to get their friend’s attention in the distance. Tall trees without leaves. You get the idea.

3. Dissect. Pick the list apart and analyze what you’ve come up with in detail. Do you realize you’ve only written down things you see, but few of what you hear and nothing that has taste? Getting down to the nitty-gritty of what you’ve observed shows you where you have gaps and what sense you lean on first. Close your eyes and sounds will become more prevalent. Plug your ears at the same time and what you feel becomes more obvious. Your different senses send information to the brain to help you perceive your environment. When you add or subtract what one or more senses experience, you change how your brain responds to what you take in.

4. Detail. Give a detailed account that reveals the expanse of what you’ve experienced. You can talk to yourself out loud or write some notes in your Observation Journal. The key here is to help your brain bring closure to your observation exercise, or you’ll find it will run on for an eternity, remembering the smallest details and making you feel they have to be added to your list. For example, you may say to yourself, “Today, at this art museum I’ve seen all the different paintings that Monet painted. I’ve heard the excitement and indifference of other visitors. The light and sound of the space has been a part of the experience. And I’ve detected every scent possible. I’ve taken in all I can, and now my exercise is complete.”

How to observe: an exercise

Set aside an hour for this exercise. Choose a place to go that is unfamiliar from your regular day-to-day activities, and pack your Observation Journal. Once you’re at your destination, find a comfortable place to sit. Put your phone away. The point of this exercise is to slow down and take in the world around you. You can’t do that if you’re checking your phone every few minutes, and you are not allowed to take notes on your phone. Now, for the next 30 minutes, watch what goes on. What kind of people do you see? What sounds do you hear? How is the area laid out? Are there smells that are unique to the place or time of day when you’re there?

Write down everything you see, hear, feel, taste, or touch. Nothing you notice is too big or too insignificant to take note of. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right or wrong (there’s no such thing), or if someone sees you sitting, doing nothing, and taking notes on it. Your purpose is simply to take time to be where you are and write down everything you take in.

After 30 minutes your mind will have begun to relax. It’s important that you give yourself this time, because you need mental space to forget about your to-do list and where you need to be next. Then, take 30 minutes and write down everything you noticed, no matter how big or small. Don’t judge whether anything is relevant or not. Your assignment in this exercise is to take in as much as you can and document it, all in less than an hour.

For your first time, shoot for at least 100 observations. As you go through the process more than five times, you’ll find that you’ll come up with 200–300 observations with greater ease. This is because you’re teaching your brain how to pay attention. With this exercise, you actually have two goals. The first is to train your brain to become more observant out of habit. The second is to collect dots (observations) to which you can refer back as we move into the next steps of the Perpetual Innovation process.

As an example, the following is a list of things I observed at a coffee shop by my house in Denver:

• People in line

• Food in glass case

• Microwave dings

• Smell of coffee

• Hard floor

• Skid-free rug

• Man chewing fingernails

• Woman on phone

• Man texting

• People’s names on cups

• Sugar/stirrer/napkin station

• Trash can inside cabinet

• Barstools

• Tall table

• Short table

• Hard-back chairs

• Cushy chairs

• Bright lights

• Cozy corner

• Woman reading

• Laughter

• Burnt coffee smell

• Baby crying

• Poopy diaper smell

• Pastries

• Breakfast food

• Lunch food

• Snacks

• Sweetness of my hot cocoa

• Coffee to go

• Floral perfume

• Outdoor seating

• People waiting for drinks

• Hot drinks

• Cold drinks

• Feeling of sugar on the table

• Tall ceilings

• Single-gender bathrooms

• Baby-changing station

• Wall soap dispenser

• Community flyers

• Sugar packet wrappers on floor

• Straw wrappers on floor

• Crumbs on tables

• Cups with names written on them

• Cold breeze from open door

• Employee uniforms

• Menu high on wall

• Background music

• Tip jar

• Bananas

• Cooler with drinks below food case

• Pound packages of coffee to go

• Gift cards

• Used newspapers

• To-go coffee mugs for sale

• Cardboard sleeves for cups

• Overflowing trashcan

• Hugs

• Kiss

These are just some of the things I observed, and I wrote many more in my Observation Journal. It was a busy time of day—rush hour in the morning—so people and things moved quickly. It was a different experience than if I had taken an hour in the afternoon when people are more likely to linger and work or catch up with friends.

Why it’s important to do the observation exercise often

When you’ve done the exercise at least five times, you’ll find that your brain begins to take note of details without you needing to tell it to. You’ll be in line at the grocery store, and all of a sudden, you’ll see things for the first time that have always been there. Maybe you’re sitting on a plane and see tiny details in the pattern in the carpet in the aisle. Or you could notice inflections in people’s voices that reveal hidden emotions.

The reason that practice is important is that you need to make a habit of collecting dots. This is because before you can get to having better ideas, you have to start with more ideas. And in order to have more ideas, you need to be able to make connections between as many dots as possible.

As you work through the Perpetual Innovation process, you’ll winnow down the things you have to work with as you go through each step. By having hundreds of observations to start with, you’ll find yourself in a much better place when it’s time to start generating new ideas down the line.

Until then, what do you do with all the observations you’ve collected so far? That’s what we’ll get into in the next section of this series: Distill.

Want to read more on how to observe better? Check out:

Learning Through Looking
How to Build a Culture of Original Thinkers
Where Great Ideas Come From

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.