In my 50 years of industry experience, I learnt, like many others, that a good manager is, or should be, a good listener and a good observer. Some managers are either one or the other.
Many managers are neither–and this is a great pity. Being good listeners and good observers would make a big difference to a manager’s career and to the organisation he works
for–whether industry, bureaucracy or politics.
Many years ago, there was the story of a little girl with her grandfather in a train. The child kept describing in great detail, the passing scenario outside–much to the annoyance of the other passengers who were seated close by.
When they got up to get off at their destinations, the passengers noted that the grandfather was blind. Now, the passengers were angry with themselves. The little girl had developed into a good observer and reporter of what she saw–to make up for grandfather’s blindness!
Children are superb observers. They point out all kinds of things that adults never notice, or do not want to notice. Piercing questions are asked which their parents are hard put to answer.
Children have an unerring and uncompromising eye for their elders’ slightest flaws.
My son Samir made us realise the special way in which a close family friend laughed; and the special way an uncle walked.
But we would discourage children from exercising their natural power with “Samir, you should not mimic Dan’s quiet laugh.”
It is said that a child of five or six has a roving mind full of curiosity that verges on creative genius. To be very young is “to see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower," as William Blake wrote in his "Auguries of Innocence".
Continuing observation has to go hand in hand with increasing knowledge. When children observe and ask questions, adults must encourage them to find out more, through reading, reference, or discussion.
We are then able to synthesise what we observe, comparing and combining impressions to come up with rounded conclusions. Just noticing things has no meaning, if one has no idea what they mean, or one has no intention of finding out more about them.
Observation is one of the chief operating principles of science. Discoveries that burst on the world like a thunderclap are often the result of years of hard work, looking through a microscope and noting the slightest changes in the subject of research.
That is how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Thomas Edison, who invented the electric bulb after conducting 3,000 experiments, wrote –“The average person’s brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes. It is incredible, how poor our powers of observation- genuine observation- are.”
Some are born with the faculty of keen observation, and others must develop it.
The doyen of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, was of the former class.
In one of Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes says of a man he has just met for the first time, “Beyond the obvious facts that he has, at some time, done manual labour; that he takes snuff; he is a Freemason; that he has been to China; and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
One glance at his visitor was enough for Holmes to take in all these points of identity. He believed that his talent for observation was partly hereditary, but he also made an immense effort to see what others may overlook.
His whole method of detection, he said, was “based on the observation of trifles.”
An alert salesman can enter someone’s office and advise how best to approach the person after a quick glance at the desk and at the room.
There is the story of the door-to-door salesman for dictionaries who was told by the lady who opened the door “No – thank you. We already have a dictionary there.”
She pointed to a book on the sideboard, which could be seen from the door.
“Oh no,” said the salesman, “that’s the Bible, not the Dictionary.”
The woman was amazed- the salesman was right.
“And how do you know that?” She asked.
“From the amount of dust on the cover,” was the quick reply from the observant salesman.
In the same way, a trained engineer can scan a factory floor and note dozens of points about its workings. And it is the same in every profession.
John, chief executive officer (CEO) of a pharma multinational where I worked, always came in an hour before starting time. He went round the office block, looked at the state of the table tops, and the letter on the floor.
He did a quick round of the factory; noticed the pools of water on the factory floor, powder spread round the tableting machines.
By the time the production, finance and commercial directors came to the office, there were already little notes on their tables–notes giving the observations of the CEO, when he was on his rounds and requesting correction!
The American industrialist EC Grace said: “If I were to prescribe one process in the training of men, which is fundamental to success in any direction (specially business), it would be a thorough training in the habit of acute observation.”
Like Sherlock Holmes, an effective observer in business sees what others overlook, whether in a production line, an administration routine, in a sales situation or a balance sheet.
Keen observation is perhaps the foundation of what is called 'business reengineering'.
More than that, by cultivating the power of observation, people can be truly live and lead vibrant, fulfilling lives.
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia. His latest 3 books written in collaboration are 5Gs of Family Business; Marketing in a Digital/ data world; and Customer Value Starvation can kill. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)