“Reflection #1: How could you not see this?

Observation as the mother of our decisions

We are all stunned by the data hunger of Google, Facebook and the many other digital products we use every day. Most of us have heard that Artificial Intelligence can only realise its full potential if it has a lot of data to learn from.
This seven-minute-read is the first in a series on how we human beings too depend on collecting data and how we move through data from learning to understanding and finally to action– whether we notice it or not. The series starts with the importance of human observations and their constant updating as a major basis for our learning and the mother of our decisions.

Let us start with three stories.

You are stopped by the traffic police while driving down the street you take every day to your office. They ask you whether you know why they stopped you and you answer with a convinced and amazed “I have no idea”. Then they tell you that you obvi-ously did not keep to the new speed limit in this street. And apart from that, you would have been too fast even for the old one.
You just finished an article on a complex negotia-tion to be published as a success story in your company’s “Inhouse Gazette”. By now, you have reread it three times and think that you have done a good job. You give it to a colleague to proofread. She hands it back with a good feedback, but she tells you that one line of argument in a longer passage did not convince her and she found nine spelling errors. At first, you cannot believe it and feel ashamed of your negligence. Then you are grateful that two pairs of eyes see more than two.
Then there is this young applicant for a junior position in your team. Her CV is just the one you were looking for and she seems a nice person. The interview goes well until she asks whether you support home office for one or two days a week. You tell her that this is not how you do things in your team and expect that she will accept your decision. At the end of the interview she admits that she has a job offering from a young team building the whole company structure on a modern work-place concept including home office. You are really disappointed to learn that they are planning to accept the second job offer and wonder whether you have missed important developments in the job market for young high potentials.

Only through new observations you can challenge outdated convictions

The examples of new traffic signs, our self-authored text and the negative reaction of an applicant remind us of how difficult it is to observe all objects, people and problems around us with the curiosity of some-one who depends on not missing any new develop-ment.
For this, we need concentration, training and the exchange with others. When we enter our car to drive to our office, it may help to begin with wondering how many of the traffic signs we remember on our way – particularly the speed limits and the right-of-way regulations. Every now and then we can train ourselves to look for them just like a visitor to our town would do in order to avoid fines and accidents.
Working on an important text or presentation, we should let it rest one night as a first draft, so that we can then read it the next day with the attitude of a person who has never seen it before. Some people go to a different office with a different ambience to do that. They normally find the unconvincing arguments and seven out of ten spelling errors.
As to talent attraction, we can try to observe our own company from the perspective of a young applicant. We may have to get in touch with young people long before we have a job opening so that we are not surprised of what they expect from their future employer.
Compare observations with those of others
Our observations are interpreted and categorised through our previous learning. This seems to be an effective strategy of our brain to save valuable re-sources needed for moments when we have to cope with new and unknown challenges. At the same time, this makes it so difficult to return to being open for new observations on anything familiar – young applicants, longtime employees, colleagues, custom-ers, competitors or problems.
One way of overcoming that trap is comparing our observations to those of others. We can ask col-leagues, customers and other people working on the same project how they see a specific development, a situation or the reaction of another member of the team. The more diverse the observers are, the more helpful they will be for us.
It may be difficult at first to find the people we want to share our observations with. It needs trust. It may need some intuition to find the right situation and the right approach for such an exchange. The reward will be that we can add the observations of others to ours and compare them. By that, we will learn a lot about the world and about other people.
At best, this will start a self-sustaining process be-cause next time we will be the observers for the sake of others. Sharing observations is the start of many personal and business networks. Maybe next time we have a high potential in front of us, we know how to handle her questions on our home office rules.

Observation is different from interpretation

Many of us tend to mix observation with interpreta-tion too quickly. We have to be aware that they are not the same and differentiating them takes some exercise and methodological thinking. Experts rec-ommend as a first step that we decide for ourselves to look at things and people as if we were a video camera. By doing so, we notice new details in any-thing we look at. Moreover, if we do not want to be tricked by our memory later, we should write down our observations. It is only then that we should allow ourselves to jump to first interpretations of what we observed.
If we do not keep observation and interpretation apart, the consequences for ourselves may be tolera-ble. But if we are not aware of this important differ-ence in what others tell us, we are easy victims to manipulation, because we might unconsciously adopt their interpretation of their observations. Maybe we would interpret their observation quite differently.

Defining the right observation space

Every interest and every problem has its own observa-tions space. In Artificial Intelligence this is called search space. When you are driving to the office your observation space is defined by the streets you take. When you write an article for a publication it is your field of expertise, orthography and the interests of your readers. When you want to learn something about young people, you have to visit their digital environments. The observation space can quickly get quite complex.
Internet, social media and mass communication have made our world flat and the observation space almost limitless. Threats to our daily routines, convictions and business success can come from literally any-where.
This has far reaching consequences for the areas which we have to scan and observe. The progress of science and technology, the easy networking of people, the emergence of new alliances or the ambi-tions of confident young professionals – they all form the expectations and convictions of our customers, employees and peers.
The progress of technology and changes in society also render some of our traditional observation spaces less informative or even obsolete. One of those observation spaces is defined by what we believe to be our past success factors. We take them as reliable indicators for our future successes. Yet, it is much more likely that outdated observations and recipes seduce us into making dangerous decisions concern-ing current problems.

How much observation is enough?

Our observations result in data. By analyzing their context, our brain translates data into information. The traffic sign with its colors and a number on it are data. Our brain transforms them into the information that makes us slow down.
The answer to the question of how much data we need depends on the size of the observation space and the type of problem we want to solve.
For careful drivers, one traffic sign can be enough to trigger a reaction. Careless drivers may need one or more follow-ups to remember that there was a speed limit in the first place. It’s the same with observations that executives make in their environments. The careful ones among them tend to register slight changes and start thinking whether they are acci-dental or the beginning of a new trend. They sharpen their senses and go on collecting observations.
Negligent observers do not notice new developments until they observe their impact everywhere. Then it is often too late for letting observations consolidate and to separate the important from the irrelevant. This is one reason why bad observers tend to react with inconsistent activism.
Having the right amount of data in any given situa-tion is key. The amount of observations you want to collect should be enough for you to analyze correla-tions and causal relationships in the data you have. The data should not be so many that they exceed your resources to analyze them. What we said about the danger of not separating observations from interpretation is equally true for the relationship between data and analysis. Doing analysis with not enough data may lead to wrong conclusions. Certain-ly for computers, but also for us humans. Also, data may be the result of biased observations which may come from our unconscious desire to run an analysis which only endorses our prejudices.
Google and friends know about this and with all your devices you give them your data and make them stronger. This should remind you that collecting and updating data about your environment is the major source for your personal strength and competence. Don’t leave that to algorithms and the Googles.