An invasion of bright ideas
Photograph by John Lund — Getty Images/Blend Images RM
By Hal Gregersen
August 7, 2015

Scott Cook, founder and CEO of Intuit (INTU), didn’t come up with his concept for the popular Quicken money management software sitting behind the desk or spit-balling ideas in a brainstorming session. He first conceived of it while watching his wife grow increasingly frustrated preparing the family’s finances. From a single observation, combined with Cook’s understanding of computers, one of the world’s most successful financial software companies was born.

Consider all of the times you’ve asked yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Indeed, the world’s next pioneering innovation could be sitting in plain view for anyone to discover. But what is it that inspires some people to take the next step on something overlooked by others?

Our research of high-impact leaders shows about one-third of them fall into the camp of observers –carefully observing the world around them with all of their senses, and identifying common threads across often unconnected data to provoke unique business ideas. Observation has transformative power. Yet, in today’s 24/7 culture, many of us operate on autopilot, starving our brain’s creative capacity. Here are three ways to tune this critical discovery skill and increase the odds that your next observation adds up to great innovation.

Schedule It

The most obvious way to become a great observer is to actively observe. Take a page from Cook’s book and watch your spouse or child perform a task. Schedule observation excursions; pick a company to follow, or set aside 10 minutes to observe something intensely. Following observation periods, think about how that might lead to a new strategy, product service or production process.

In business, the greatest observation deck is often the company itself. Twinings’ chief operating officer made it a priority early on to observe the full lifecycle of Twinings tea products – starting with the farmers who harvest the tea, to plant workers who package it, to the ship captains who export it worldwide, to the stores’ managers who stock it, down to the customers who consume it. For this executive, observation was not only key to understanding his job but to identifying opportunities for innovation that could be applied to other aspects of the business.

Look for Surprises

Surprises are where true learning and innovation starts. Cook once told me: “The only way I know to teach people to be innovative is to teach them how to observe and ask just one question that often generates surprising responses, ‘What’s different than you expected?’”

At Intuit, Cook sends his marketing team and software engineers to observe customers at home as they use Quicken software. By opening themselves up to surprises, these team members are more apt to spot customers who have workarounds to use the product in unintended ways.

Interestingly, a similar approach led Rod Drury from New Zealand to found Xero, a company emerging as a serious Intuit competitor. Drury shadowed 200 business owners on a quest to make accounting easier. After booting up the computer and grabbing coffee, he noticed that there was one more thing these owners had in common: they all checked to see how much cash they had in the bank. That Eureka moment set in motion a series of questions and events that eventually led to a new cloud-based accounting software that gives small businesses the answers they need, including automatic bank feeds, as soon as they boot their computers.

Change Your Environment

Sometimes switching up the scenery is all it takes to see a problem – and solution – in a new way. Doug Dietz, a designer of GE Healthcare’s diagnostic imaging systems, was deeply impacted by an experience touring a hospital. In one of the exam rooms, he noticed a small child crying because she was afraid to get into the machine Dietz designed. Deeply influenced by this scene, he took his design team to visit children’s museums, preschools, and other places to watch children at play. He took his findings back to the hospital and worked with them to create calming environments around the machines. In the pirate room, they painted the machine like a ship (plank and all), infused the air with coconut oil and had the staff dress up a bit like pirates. As a result, rates of kids requiring sedation during imaging sessions dropped dramatically, from 80 to 20 percent.

All along Dietz and his team had asked, “How can we get the best technical image of children” when the more important question was “How can we help children feel emotionally safe?”

Our best observations are frequently powered by our best questions. At the end of the day, it’s critical to ask yourself one key question: What was unexpected? If you are paying attention, you will see surprises. You will see the unexpected and transform those surprises into new ways of doing things.

Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovatorsand founder of The 4-24 Project.

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