Where Science Meets Muse

Refocusing Our Powers of Observation – Innovation starts with an “Eye”

Posted by Plish on April 18, 2010


Too often we think of innovation as a set of rules, which, if followed, will yield some tidy product or service.  The reality is that innovations are more than a process- they’re the breech offspring of astute observation, brought into the world on the verge of being strangled by dulled, but aggressive perceptions and preconceptions.

An old, entrepreneur boss of mine boasted of being able to visit manufacturing plants and “steal with his eyes.”  He was the epitome of what  Swiss theologian, Johann Kaspar Lavater, described when he opined:“He alone is an acute observer, who can observe minutely without being observed.” 

My boss’s goal was not to copy something directly but to mentally catalogue what he saw – knowing that when the situation was right, he would subconsciously or even consciously, use what he saw as a springboard to something better.

We see, smell, touch, taste, and hear constantly but we are trained to ignore most of it as it gets in the way of ‘being productive.’  Yet, intense observational skills run in the bloodlines of innovators beginning with the very first humans.  

Everyone looked at the heavens. Yet, before even the dawn of the telescope, only a few observed that there were ‘wanderers’ among the stars: the planets.

 Everyone saw birds flying, but the Wright brothers observed and gave birth to the airplane.

As Yogi Berra was purported to have said: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Watching is more than light hitting our retinas.  It is seeing with the knowledge and predisposition that there is something wonderfully unique about what we are witnessing at this point in time.  It is cataloguing occurring at the locus  of the senses during an observational moment.

I remember many years ago I was tasked with designing a new locking mechanism for interventional drainage catheters.  (These are minimally invasive catheters that are used to drain cysts in the liver, or kidneys.  The locking mechanism keeps the catheter from coming out of the body during the treatment time.)  The current locking mechanisms all had mechanical keys or switches that would lock the catheter in place.

As I was watching a procedure I noticed that the doc was doing an awful lot with his fingers. At the end he tied a few sutures to hold a protective pad down.  It was amazing how quickly and accurately his fingers moved.  When I saw more clinicians and procedures it became clear that all clinicians were trained in using sutures.  They could, quite literally tie them off blindfolded.  I realized that the new design shouldn’t have any locking keys – it just needed a means to hold the locking suture in place.  

The end result is what is pictured here.  It is a catheter hub that is locked by simply wrapping the suture into a slot between two o-rings.  The process of wrapping locks the catheter and seals it from leaking by compressing a silicone gasket.  Docs loved it – no keys, no fuss, no muss, just wrap and done!

My point is that hundreds of docs, and others, watched the procedures being done.  What ultimately led to a new locking system wasn’t what occurred during the main body of the procedure but what occurred at the conclusion, when things were being cleaned up; when even the doctor himself was chatting away because he knew the high pressure times had passed.

Such is the power of intentioned observation.

In fact, I would venture to say that if companies spent more time honing their employees’ observational skills, this single change would impact their innovative culture more than any other program.  Why do I say this?

Every company knows there are things going on impacting their output.   The problem is that the company doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.  On the other hand, people who are truly observant, who pay attention with all their senses, will notice where things are deficient.   Noticing deficiencies is the first step towards change, the first step towards innovation.

So how does one start becoming observant? 

First off, start being observant at all times.  Make a point of paying attention to the world around you.  It’s Spring here in the Midwest so there’s a lot going on in nature.  Enjoy it, be curious and most of all, be cognizant.  I’ll leave you with this video of the Lotus  Effect, only it’s not a Lotus, it’s a Tulip.  I’ve seen tulips my whole life and this is the first time I really paid attention to the leaves and its amazing ability to self-clean.  It was also the first time I transplanted an abundance of tulips.

Yes, in one way you can say it’s sad that I never noticed this before.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t trade the feeling I get now when watching water skitter off the leaves.  It feels like I’m privy to  a hidden special world.   The good news is that this world is there for everybody – we just need to observe….


3 Responses to “Refocusing Our Powers of Observation – Innovation starts with an “Eye””

  1. Can’t agree with you more. Observation is the starting point for all innovation and creativity. While physical things and phenomenon are easy to observe what makes it difficult is to observe the invisible web of relationships that connects all physical things within a system. And that can’t be done with the eye alone.

  2. Plish said

    (observing) the invisible web of relationships that connects all physical things within a system (is what is difficult).

    Thanks, Dibyendu for the observation (and forgive the pun)!

  3. […] Refocusing Our Powers Of Observation […]

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