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Archive for the ‘observation’ Category

Want to Innovate? Don’t Forget the Prosciutto! (It’s not just about food)

Posted by Plish on January 25, 2018


This doesn’t look impressive does it?

But it smells and tastes delicious!!

What does this have to do with innovation?


The Road to Innovation is Paved with Prosciutto

The other day I was poaching an egg for breakfast.  I had some baked prosciutto chips that I had made a few days earlier.  I didn’t want to throw the crunchy pieces on the finished egg so I figured I’d re-hydrate them by throwing them in the water with the egg.

A mouthwatering aroma started rising from the water…

When the egg was done I took the egg and soft prosciutto out of the water.

I ate the egg and prosciutto with a slice of flax bread, and it was tasty.  But, I was intrigued by what I was still smelling in the pot.    I took a spoon and tasted it.

…hmmmm…not bad…

I poured some into a ramekin, added salt and pepper.

…Wow! REALLY good!

I immediately recorded what I had done in Evernote, along with some ideas for how I could use this stock next time.

After cleaning up, I did some searching and found that prosciutto stocks are a known delicacy. So, while I hadn’t discovered something totally new, nonetheless it was something we would call an innovation.

How did we go from poached egg with Prosciutto (everyday thing) to Innovation (Prosciutto Stock)?

Notice that the innovation isn’t even what I was going for.  I didn’t create a crazy type  of prosciutto egg.   I made prosciutto stock.

How did this happen?

During the course of one experiment (trying to soften the prosciutto while poaching the egg) I made an observation, remember?

A mouthwatering aroma started rising from the water…

When experimenting, pay attention with all the senses – be present, be mindful.  Poaching an egg typically involves sight, touch and a sense of time.  The senses of smell and sound don’t typically come into play.  I could’ve ignored what I was smelling, but I didn’t.

I took a spoon and tasted it.

I almost threw out the cooking water, but I was curious.  I knew that if something smells good it usually tastes good.

Don’t ignore your curiosity – Follow through on it!  You will be rewarded as I was.

hmmmm…not bad…

Refine what you discovered.  Experiment with the results of your experiment.  Understand its limits.  Explore the potential of your new discovery!

Wow! REALLY good.

That’s great, but what’s the next step?

Record the discovery.  Understand its import.  Continue to build upon the discovery.

But don’t just sit on it.

See what others have done. Check if the idea is worth protecting.  Compare and continue to build upon the concept.

So there you have it.  Next time you’re experimenting or testing a prototype, don’t just rigidly perform and interpret an experiment.

Engage all the senses in the experiment. 

Be present to everything, even your feelings and how you’re responding to what you’re experiencing.  Yes,  “Why?” is an important question to ask.

What’s better when you’ve discovered something,  is to ask yourself if what you’re experiencing has the potential to be good or bad.  Don’t assume you know the answer! Be brutally honest with yourself, and if you don’t know if something is good or bad, find a way to quickly perform a test to find the answer.

You’ll be rewarded 🙂








Posted in creativity, culture of innovation, Design, Food, idea generation, innovation, observation | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What are You Seeing when You’re Listening? – Don’t Ignore this Key to Innovation

Posted by Plish on January 15, 2018

To observations which ourselves we make, we grow more partial for th’ observer’s sake. (Alexander Pope)

I really like the book, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers .   It’s chock full of insights and I like just picking a random page and reading.  But there’s a problem with it  – actually there’s a problem with all books that give the ‘secrets behind success’.

One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind. (Alphonse Bertillon)

If you ask people, “what are you doing there?”, they will tell you what it is they think they’re doing.  The problem is that it may, or may not, be what they’re actually doing.

So is the information contained in books like Tools of Titans wrong?

No, not at all.  But it very well may be incomplete, or worse, inaccurate.  Very often people say what it is that they remember what they’re doing.  They share what they think is important  – the little things are left out.

Practical observation commonly consists of collecting a few facts and loading them with guesses.(Author unknown)

I was researching a surgical procedure once to determine if there were some improvements that could be made to the devices the doc was using.  He told me what he was doing, before, during and after the procedure.  He answered all of my questions.

However, what was surprising to me is that, while he said there were no problems with the procedure, there was a certain repetitive motion that the doc used.  It wasn’t even a comfortable motion, it was very awkward in fact.

But the doctor never mentioned it and said everything was great!

Developing better and more accurate observational skills is essential for everybody and every profession. Basically, If you can’t observe accurately, you can’t think accurately. (Tiit Raid)

You can observe a lot by just watching. (Yogi Berra)

The key point here is that observation is key to understanding what people are doing.  In fact, observation can be even more powerful that interviews alone.  But, communicating the observations such that they can become building blocks for future projects is a task unto itself.

There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation, and for some men it is quite as difficult to record an observation in brief and plain language. (Sir William Osler)

Observing without communicating this information effectively can  create a situation in which people can reach inaccurate conclusions, and then that could result in a product that doesn’t meet  requirements, or worse: a project gets cancelled because there is no perceived need.

Tools of Titans‘ author, Tim Ferriss,  only shared information that he personally experimented with.  So, in essence, Tools of Titans is a list of things that worked for Tim.   That, incidentally, is a great way to show others what you’ve learned.  Try it and then share!

Everyone is in the best seat. (John Cage)


Everyone thinks that they know what they’re doing.    Especially if it has to do with their own habits/rituals.  That’s not bad, just incomplete.  Sometimes the only access we have to a person’s activities are through what they say they do.  We just have to  trust and try and flesh it out.  With the right questions, sometimes interviewees themselves are surprised to learn what they’re doing.

Tools of Titans does a great job of sharing people’s perceived actions and activities.  It’s a great resource.  But, it’s also a great reminder that as designers, as innovators, while we can learn powerful things from what people say they do, we can learn even more by observing.



Posted in Design, innovation, Innovation Tools, Interviews, observation, problem solving, Service Design | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Want A New Year’s Resolution to Increase Your Innovation Output? – Try This

Posted by Plish on January 2, 2018

Happy New Year!!

Yes, it’s the new year.  A fresh slate.  It’s time for that time honored tradition of making resolutions.

In the world of innovation, there is one resolution you can make that will result in more creative ideas, more really creative innovations.

But before we make that resolution, Let’s Toast with a Heineken!

Heineken’s interactive, Ignite beer bottle is a thing to behold.  It’s not just a passive hunk of glass that holds a liquid.  It’s an active participant, sensing and responding, thus encouraging certain behaviors.

But their work has gone beyond the bottle.  Heineken also uses IoT and AR to increase sales and optimize the sales and distribution process.

The point here is that Heineken is not just seeing themselves as providing beer.  They see themselves as providing an experience.  From the store to the nightclub, they understand that people have lives, they act in certain ways in certain situations. When designing products with this in mind, not only does Heineken see improved sales and distribution, but people enjoy the product more!

What does this have to do with the New Year’s Resolution?

Everything.   Great innovations come from great ideas that dive into the depths of reality.  In Heineken’s case, these innovations come from a shift in perspective.  They look beyond the obvious and embrace the breadth and depth of the product experience.

At the heart of these innovations is a realization that for every action there is not only a reaction but a pre-action, and there are reasons for these actions.

Let’s Buy a Hammer

I want to buy a hammer to drive a nail into a wall.  Chances are, I don’t just want a nail in a wall.  I want to hang a picture.  But, I don’t just want to hang a picture, I want to beautify the room, or bring back a memory.  You see where this is going.

Most hammer manufacturers are making something to drive a nail.  It’s why hammers are virtually unchanged for decades.  They focus on efficient nail driving. But,  the nail is more than that, and in fact, it’s part of the process to create an experience – it’s not just about driving nails. (Other companies have realized that.  Nail-less hangers and non-marring adhesives all get at the ‘hanging’ part of the process.  But they still don’t necessarily see the whole picture. HA! No pun intended 😉 )

Heineken, on the other hand, is exploring the many tentacles of before, after, during and why.  Beer is purchased and consumed in specific contexts.   It’s not just a bottle.  It’s part of an experience.  We share a toast.  We drink in clubs.  We clink bottles.  We savor and feel the beat of the music.  The bottle is in the midst of all this, and it’s a shame that it’s been a passive part of that experience. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.  

The bottle can enrich the experience. 

It can participate in the club environment – it can sense and respond, and because it does, it creates it’s own feedback.  We gain pleasure from experiencing the bottle and its contents, so we encourage and repeat certain behaviors.

At the end of the day though, it’s not about bottles. It’s about innovative products and services that bring exciting and memorable experiences.

So let’s make that Resolution!

I resolve to look for, and design for, the Truth behind the Reality.

whoa…. that’s deep.

Not really.   It’s just a more thorough way of innovating.

Explore context. Explore ritual.  Explore relationships.  Explore meaning.

Personally I like the AEIOU framework:

A: Activities are goal directed sets of actions – things which people want to accomplish

E: Environments include the entire arena where activities take place

I: Interactions are between a person and someone or something else, and are the building blocks of activities

O: Objects are building blocks of the environment, key elements sometimes put to complex or unintended uses, changing their function, meaning and context

U: Users are the consumers, the people providing the behaviors, preferences and needs (Christina Wasson, quoting E-Lab, 1977)

Courtesy of https://www.10000ft.com/design-recipes/aeiou-research-framework

There are other systems like POEMS, POSTA, etc., but the point of them all is to find and design for the truth behind the reality.  Look at the big picture – don’t settle for the obvious!

The Reality: I want drive a nail into a wall

The Truth Behind the Reality: I want to take a step to beautify a room with a picture from a vacation to remind everyone of the great memories there

The Reality: I want to have a cold beer at a night club

The Truth Behind the Reality: I want to have fun!  I want a night of memories, a night of interaction!

The Reality:  A surgeon wants to cut a hole in the skin

The Truth Behind the Reality: A surgeon wants to quickly and easily place a device. The surgeon wants the patient to feel better so that she can go to her grand-daughter’s wedding in a week.

Where do you think the innovations are going to come from?

Designing for “The Reality” or for “The Truth Behind the Reality”?

Sure, innovation can come from just designing for “The Reality”.  In a world where all that is needed are nails driven into a surface, a new design of hammer – a nail gun – will be hailed as an innovation.    But let’s look at the “Truth Behind the Reality”:    How will people with nail guns interact with each other and the nails?  What about being able to use it in cold, or heat, or rain, or underwater?  Are we just putting up boards or building a house that will be a home? What about types of materials being nailed?  Who is buying the nail driver?  Are nail drivers even necessary?

See the difference?  Ideas will start flowing once we look under the surface.

The choice is yours

You can choose to design for “The Reality”.  You can make another hammer, another beer, another beer container.

But understand the “Truth Behind the Reality” and you will design products and services that Ignite experiences.

Make the resolution and stick to it.  

I resolve to look for, and design for, the Truth behind the Reality.

The world will thank you!




Posted in creativity, Design, Disruptive Innovation, innovation, Innovation Tools, observation, problem solving, Research, Service Design, Technology, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Three Words That Will Alert You To Opportunities for Innovation and Growth

Posted by Plish on January 20, 2017

“I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Donald Trump.”
“I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Hillary Clinton.”
“I don’t understand how anyone can play Pokémon for that long”
“I don’t understand why anyone would want to buy an iPad when an Android works just as well”
“How can anyone listen to {Taylor Swift, Kanye West, etc….}?”  (This is a veiled way to say “I don’t understand.”)
I Don’t Understand…


Those three words represent a disconnect from people and objects. They represent a lack of understanding of how people are being served, or how their desires are (or aren’t) being met. They point to how we don’t understand how people’s aspirations may be enabled and thus they point to how we don’t understand the opportunities present.

But perhaps more importantly, those three words highlight that we haven’t taken the time to understand people. What does that say about us? We like to think of ourselves as well informed, as perhaps at The Cutting Edge, as caring human beings.  Yet, we are confronted with seemingly inexplicable phenomena where millions of people are fans of a product, service, or person.

There’s a lesson here regardless of what products we like, or what people we want for president, or what games we play. We need to be tuned in to what other people want. If we really want to build better communities, a better world, we need to understand each other. We need to know where people are coming from. We need to know what types of things are passionately driving people in their day-to-day lives.

Niches of (Not) Understanding

Those words, “I don’t understand…” alert us to niches.  When designing products and services, we must play in those niches . And as we’ve seen, those niches can be comprised of millions and millions of people.

Pay Attention

Pay attention to what people do. Pay attention to what people say. Understand what excites people. What makes people happy? What do people feel that they will lose if they don’t have something? What will people feel they will gain if they do have something or if they don’t?

Today the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, is being sworn in. His election highlights the fact that there are millions upon millions of people in this country who don’t understand how somebody could vote for somebody else. That means that there are millions of people that’s simply don’t understand their fellow Americans people that’s too high a number.  If we’re designing a better country, (and that’s something that everyone seemingly wants), we need to rise above caricatures and start understanding each other’s motivations and pains.  We need to really understand and not lump everyone into neat little political, racial, socio-economic, etc. silos of categorization.


Thinking we understand is perhaps even worse than not understanding at all. When we misunderstand, we risk going down the unfruitful paths.  We risk spending money, time and energy on things that won’t resonate and hence won’t succeed.    Can anyone say “Edsel“?

Listen For Those Three Words

“I don’t understand”  Use those words as a springboard to exploring the relationships, needs, and desires, of people. Those words are the key to new products, services, and even in the bigger picture, a better world.  At at the end of the day, the best thing we can say is, “I understand why…” , or “I understand how…”

Once we understand, we grow.  When we’ve grown, we can get to work designing  solutions:  better products, better services, a better world.


Posted in culture of innovation, Design, innovation, observation, Politics, problem solving, Service Design, Social Innovation, The Future | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Worry About the Elephant in the Room, Look for the Chameleons

Posted by Plish on June 30, 2016



Photo Courtesy of momtastic.com


You’ve got multiple experts in a room.  They’re all giving their opinions on the state of a market, or a new product.  Very often this leads to the manifestation of proverbial Elephant in the Room – the obvious issue no one wants to mention because it’s embarrassing, or taboo, as it has implications that could impact the project in a negative way.

While no one wants to talk about the elephant, the good news is that it’s there.  Yes, no one is talking about it (yet), but if  the culture is such that accountability is valued more than meeting deadlines, the elephant will be revealed and it will get talked about.  (If there are negative ramifications for saying something important just because it will negatively impact a product launch, you’ve got bigger problems than the elephant*.)

But very often, there are insights in your Voice of Customer (VOC) feedback that aren’t obvious, that won’t get talked about or dealt with – they’re Chameleons.

Chameleons are more dangerous to your project than elephants (I’m speaking with regards to VOC type data, or any situation where people are interpreting what others believe or are doing. I realize chameleons are cute benign reptiles 🙂 )  .  This is because people don’t know what they don’t know.  But, just because something isn’t known, doesn’t mean it can’t be known, or that there aren’t tell-tale signs present.

Since you can’t see the Chameleon directly, you have to look indirectly for the shadows –  Shifting shadows, a glimpse of movement.  It’s things that are implied, not things that are obvious.  It’s the nebulous things, the directions that are inferred from what is being said and done, not the words themselves.

This is important, because the words themselves are going to be the same words that members of the VOC panel will use when describing the situation to your competition.   If you want to have a product or service that is different and superior to what everyone else does, look for the Chameleon.

What are some tricks for seeing the Chameleon?

When dealing with VOC, a textual analysis is a great place to start.  It can reveal underlying dispositions and assumptions.  It can also show what types of metaphors, and thus what contexts people are using when they talk about your product.  I was once part of VOC feedback and noticed that certain subgroups of clinicians consistently referred to certain medical devices using military-like terms: cocked, captured, loaded, etc.  No one really noticed it because those terms are ubiquitous.   I did some textual analysis and noticed that there was another subgroup that rarely used those terms.  This was a Chameleon!

So I raised the question, do we want people using a war/battle metaphor for this surgical device, or do we want the market to use, and experience, a different, more healing metaphor?

The other tip is to pay close attention to what people do, not only what they say.  Body language, rituals, procedures, actions of any type, can give tremendous insight and reveal the Chameleons that everyone else will miss.

I once researched  a medical procedure and realized the doctor used a particular motion again and again.  The doctor never mentioned he made the movement, but he did it every procedure.  The kicker is that no products on the market leveraged that particular movement.  So I rolled that motion into the product design, creating a more ergonomic, simple, and cost effective to make, product.

Remember, do textual analysis and analyze what people do.  By being cognizant of these two tips, you’ll be well on your way to recognizing the Chameleons when they become present.  It’s well worth looking for them.  Sometimes they hide right next to the elephants. 😉



*- Actually this is a Cultural, or Corporate Chameleon.


Posted in Behavioral Science, Best Practices, Case Studies, creativity, culture of innovation, Design, Disruptive Innovation, ethnography, innovation, Innovation Tools, observation, problem solving, Service Design, Surveys | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Six Essential Guidelines to Failing Forward — Relishing Failure (Even When it Tastes Disgusting)

Posted by Plish on April 26, 2016

In the span of a couple seconds a wonderful orange, blackberry fragrance turned caramely, then malty, then char…

I quickly turned around and saw that my blackberry sauce had become a gooey burning mess.  Taking it off the heat I scraped it into a container and set it on the garbage can to cool.  I then promptly washed the pan and started another batch of my sauce – after all, the French Toast was already done.

As I went to throw away the failure, I grabbed a spoon and tasted this mess.  Who knows, maybe something good came out of it…


Carbonized berries with a hint of charred honey – bitter and brown – there really was nothing redeemable from this.  My takeaway?  Perhaps use a little more liquid, a little less sugars, or more importantly, just pay attention better!!

People always talk about failing fast, failing forward, etc.  But failing is only beneficial if we take the time to analyze, or in this case taste, our failures.

What’s needed first when we analyze?

A willingness to look!  If I was simply interested in making the French Toast and plating it; or if I was only interested in getting rid of a smoky mess and throwing it out, I wouldn’t have found out what the gooey stuff tasted, looked, smelled and felt/acted like.

Be curious about the failures no matter how mundane or common they may appear.  As noted in the classic, “The Art of Scientific Investigation“:



The Art of Scientific Investigation, by W.I.B. Beveridge, Pg. 40


The trick then is to look and really question whatever you can’t explain (and sometimes even questioning the things you (think you) can explain can be very useful!) Multiple people can see the same phenomenon and yet see different things.

Some years back, a veteran engineer was convinced that a plastic part was failing because of something happening in the mold.  I was brought in to take a look at the situation as they were short on resources.  Not taking the veteran engineer’s word, I looked more closely under a microscope.  Something didn’t seem right. After looking at the part, and the entire manufacturing and testing process more closely, I realized that the failure was actually due to a testing fixture applied to the part after it was molded.  Good parts were being made bad!  A change in the testing procedure resulted in weeks of saved time and the product was able to launch on time.

So,  while fruitful failing starts with observation, there are actually six points you should think about next time you burn a berry sauce, or something fails. Pay attention to these six points and you’ll be guaranteed to be failing-forward:

  1. Practice being curious about why things fail.  Ask questions, observe, taste, feel, smell.  If you can’t explain something, if something seems odd, follow up!
  2. Can this failure actually be used?  In other words, is it truly a failure? The charred goop may have tasted good – maybe I could’ve used it in its new form? (I couldn’t but I asked this question 🙂 )
  3. Can some aspect of the failure be used?  Okay, so maybe it tastes disgusting, but does this mean that it’s totally a loss?  Maybe charred, seasoned berry goo is good for digestion? (I don’t know if it is, but I’d venture it isn’t.)  Maybe the sticky sugar is a biofriendly adhesive?
  4. What did I do? How did I get here?  Understand the full width and breadth of what was done to create the failure.  Look at the ingredients that went into the failure, the tools and fixtures, the timing, the context/environment.  Understand what truly caused the failure.
  5. Document it!  Jot it down, put it into your phone, take pictures, make recordings. At the very minimum, commit what you can to memory.  Be conscious about remembering what happened so that it doesn’t happen again.
  6. Can you recreate the failure?  At the end of the day, we should be able to recreate the failure (I am quite confident I could burn my sauce again and create the same brown goop).  If we can’t recreate it, we didn’t understand it.

Failing is the easy part.  Turning it into something to build upon takes a conscious, concerted effort.  However, the more you are cognizant of these six points, the more fruitful and the more repeatable your product development efforts will become.

Then the fun REALLY starts!



~~~The second batch of blackberry sauce was sublime ~~~



Posted in creativity, culture of innovation, Design, design thinking, Food, innovation, Innovation Tools, observation, problem solving | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Making Lightning – The Creative Spark in All of Us

Posted by Plish on August 7, 2015

The sky went from sunset blue to thick blackness that the windshield wipers swiped at with futility.  The rain pounded the the car and an uneasy, queasy feeling filled the air as a tornado warning was issued.

I drove the rest of the way home and parked.  To the west the worst was already breaking and salmon patches of sunset backlit clouds.   To the north the blackness churned and lightning crackled from cloud to cloud as the thunder rumbled without pause.

(Mouse over and Click the play arrow and continue reading on the other side)



It’s in you!

That same power.

You’ve experienced those shocks that startle when you touch a doorknob on a dry day.

This is bigger and can change the world.

Lightning bridges gaps – tremendous expanses of space.  It’s possible because of the difference in charge, a difference in potential.   Lightning finds its way.

But you need to provide the stuff for creativity to happen.

Observe, read, smell, taste, listen, touch, dream!  Understand the challenges you want to solve and then look at them from a different perspective, and then another, and then another!

Allow those differing perspectives to mix  together and the clouds will rumble, the sky will flash, creativity will happen.

It’s in you.




Posted in Authenticity, brainstorming, Creative Environments, Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, culture of innovation, Design, idea generation, imagination, innovation, Nature of Creativity, observation, problem solving, The Human Person, Workplace Creativity, ZenStorming | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Are You Doing This Simple Thing to Improve Your Creative Abilities?

Posted by Plish on May 6, 2015

To become a better writer – READ

To become a better cook – EAT

To become a better musician – LISTEN

In short, to become a better designer/maker/artist/engineer – OBSERVE

I recently started an Instagram page for ZenStorming.  It’s filled with tips for idea generation and creative inspiration, and it’s especially geared towards people that don’t always have someone around to bounce ideas off of.  (If you aren’t on Instagram, the posts are cross-posted to my ZenStorming Facebook page.)

Since Instagram is amazingly well suited to provide quick nuggets of information, I started a weekly series for helping people improve their observational skills.  It’s based on the premise that if you are primed with a certain concept before going on a walk or drive, your eyes will be opened to new things just because of the priming.

You don’t have to see new things, to see things new!

My first observation challenge was to look for right angles.

I took my own challenge, and that day while driving to a client, I was amazed at what I saw.  I saw patterns that I never noticed before, even though I had passed the same areas innumerable times. It also amazed me how right angles are largely the work of humans.  We build a world of right angles around us. Up, down, left, right.

We create an orthogonal world.

Which is kind of interesting given that so much of nature is anything but in 90 degree intersections.  But it’s what works.

Would love to get your thoughts on this observation challenge (as well as suggestions for a catchy hashtag!)

And remember,

You don’t have to see new things, to see things new!

If you see things in a new way, you can create new things!


Posted in Arts, Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, Maker, observation, problem solving | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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