Observing and sense making

We were set a writing task last week to go out and observe, not participate, and then develop a short story from the observation. (I was on a creative writing course). That's a fairly open-ended task and we had to complete it within a couple of hours.

It reminded me of the start of most design projects I get involved in. One of the early steps is to find out what's going on in the client organisation, using various methods, and observation is often one of them.

Most design and change methodologies are rooted some form of 'current state assessment' involving observation – the language depends on the method or model. Think about the 'discovery', phase in appreciative inquiry, or the empathise stage in design thinking or the project conception of the project cycle or the awareness of the need for change in Prosci's change management model or the consulting cycle with an information gathering phase.

Observation sounds easy, but isn't. I watched two men eating lunch together, but couldn't decide if I was watching them because I was going to construct a detective story, a story on cultural habits of eating, a story of how to interpret hand gestures, or a story of something else yet to emerge as I watched. As I riffled through the various possible stories lines I focused on different aspects of the interchange that I could see but not hear. (By the way, I was inside watching through the glass window and they were outside and didn't appear to notice I was watching them).

Was the colour of the watch strap each had significant? Was the fact that they both had their phones face down on the table some kind of social agreement? What did it mean that one had his wallet on the table and the other didn't? Why did they spend some time looking at each other's rings? As I thought of different purposes for the watching I seemed to focus on different aspects of the exchange, and my interpretation of it varied depending on the storyline I was playing with.

I spend a lot of time observing in my organizational work, usually not as specifically and with such focus as that task made me. But I now wonder whether I should cultivate more conscious and reflective observational skills. The short session I spent watching the men eating lunch reminded me how easy it is to infer, assume, deduce, and jump to conclusions on very little evidence. (Take the Watson Glaser test to see how skilled you are at critical thinking). It also reminded me that observation is part of sense-making and various storylines that seem to make sense are possible but that my sense-making may not square with another person's observing the same scene. Getting to being an objective observer recording what you see without any filtering is hard. (See this blog post for 6 different recording frameworks).

Towards the end of the week – just after the observation task – I noticed several out of date flyers for events in the hall of residence I was staying in. I'd passed them multiple times and not noticed them before. This led to me to ask myself several questions in trying to make sense of this observation. Why I hadn't I noticed the flyers before – a thing about figure and ground, useful in design work? Was there anyone in the organization whose role it was to take down out-of-date notices? Does it matter that they stay up? And so on. A tiny detail but one that might be significant if I were doing organization design work there. (Think butterfly effect).

In the event I took the dated flyers down, leading to more questions: Was I being accountable or high handed? Was I showing initiative or interfering in something that wasn't 'in my job description'? …

These types of questions all seem material in organizational observation as we take observation into sense making (see this excellent academic article if you want some theory on the topic of sense-making) but what I then came to was a view that observation and sense-making are inevitably interpreted through social and cultural lenses. I needed, if not a multi-disciplinary team, at least some others to discuss and present more possibilities than those I was thinking of as I observed and tried to sense-make. In organizational life pooling the various the observations and the questions they raise could enable participative/collective sense-making and a perhaps a compelling story to emerge.

Do you think should organization designers hone their observation and sense-making skills? Let me know.

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