Did you know that marketing directors at Google use physics to explain the fundamental theories of branding? That astronomers use software developed by doctors for brain imagery to study the explosion of supernovas? And who would have guessed that the design of one of the fastest trains in the world had been inspired by nature?
In the late 1980’s, Japanese engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu studied the splashless water entry of kingfishers and the noise-reduction property of owl wings, and applied this knowledge in the design of the Shinkansen train. The new biomimetic design was not only 10% faster than previous models, it also consumed 15% less electricity and produced much less noise (residents near the tracks were delighted!).
One of the most prominent characteristics of innovators is a discovery-driven spirit that is constantly scrutinizing the world for new ideas. Many people think breakthrough innovations are the result of isolated, sophisticated thinking and research, but this is rarely the case.
History’s leading innovators and creative minds have always researched outside of the lab. When design firm IDEO was asked to renovate the computer science building at the University of California, what the faculty staff had in mind were high-tech classrooms and laboratories, futuristic fanciness and whatnot.
“When we looked at the way learning was happening we found that a good deal of it took place in the hallways, in between spaces, not in the classrooms at all” explains IDEO creative director Jane Fulton-Suri. This observation led to an entirely different model of the new buildings. Rather than focusing solely on classrooms and laboratories, more emphasis was put on circulation spaces to further encourage impromptu gatherings and collaborative learning.
This human-centered approach dates back to the rule of Umar ibn al-Khatab when he noticed that people engaged in a lot of chit-chat and arguments in the mosque. Instead of suppressing the chatter altogether, he provided people with an alternative by designating a space for discussion – just outside the mosque – known as al butayha’.
Innovation also happens when seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts are juxtaposed. When Digital Domain started working on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, they realized there was “a giant chasm” between the technology of the day and where they needed it to be to achieve high-resolution computer-generated facial expressions. So the producers started looking in other fields and combined findings from medical imaging technology, the games industry, and psychology.
This peripheral vision was crucial to the success of Digital Domain. Had they not observed and borrowed ideas from neighbouring disciplines, they may never have been able to produce such high quality production and transcend the limits of technology.
Sustainable and elegant solutions are more likely to emerge when problem-solvers leave their ivory towers and watch people in their natural habitats, collaborate across disciplines or simply examine nature. “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Here are few tips that you can apply to turn observation into a natural practice in your organization:
- Train your eye to pick up solutions for the
problems you’re trying to solve. To master this skill you must
really cultivate your mind and inform yourself. One of Fadi
for being an entrepreneur is “Listen. An entrepreneur has to
have the ability to listen more than he talks. Across industries as
well.” Make sure you thoroughly examine other disciplines and
industries, get ideas from insightful platforms (TED, StumbleUpon, etc.), and talk to
all kinds of experts. Take regular walks in urban and natural
environments, and read a lot – it’ll expand your
- Hire “anthropologists”. If you want fresh and
insightful observations, you have to dedicate a few members of your
team to camp out in schools, hospitals, malls, and bookstores, and
watch how people behave in different environments and with various
objects. Look for the subtleties and pay attention to details. How
can you make their experience more pleasant? Anthropologists help
your organization “develop a deep understanding of how people
interact physically and emotionally with products, services, and
spaces,” to quote Tom Kelly of IDEO.
- Hire cross-pollinators. While
anthropologists bring depth of understanding,
cross-pollinators enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many
fields. Cross-pollinators help tackle issues from different
perspectives and specialize in finding solutions in other
industries. Let cross-pollinators in your organization give weekly
one-hour presentations of “what’s out there.” This will help your
team switch cognitive gears and approach problems from a new angle.
Cross-pollinators open windows to the world outside the four walls
of your organization. Stephen Johnson’s motto is: “Chance favours
the connected mind."
- Document everything. Keep a database of all your personal and collective discoveries, and visit your entries every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be all text; you can arm your anthropologists with video cameras and label the recordings for future reference. Find the easiest way to store and organize the knowledge you collect in a way that suits your organization – you may want to hire a curator.
Observation is an essential skill that can greatly benefit entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and potentially anyone looking for answers to challenging questions. In the previous article I mentioned the importance of observing people’s behavior (away from artificial settings) when trying to develop a solution to their needs. The truth is, it is unlikely for an innovation to have a social impact if it is not guided by an empathetic understanding of people’s needs.
To conclude, I’d like to quote Tom Kelly again (because he’s awesome): “People who adopt the learning roles are humble enough to question their own worldview, and in doing so they remain open to new insights every day.”