Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 18;   May 2, 2012: On Noticing

On Noticing

by

What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there — can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
Male Red-Winged Blackbird displaying during breeding season

Male Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) displaying during breeding season. On the morning after I saw my double shadow, I happened to pass between two male red-winged blackbirds, perched in two trees, one on each side of the path. They were engaged in vigorous negotiations regarding breeding territory. In such negotiations, they emit a call used specifically for these transactions, one I hadn't noticed before. I stopped to find the birds that were doing it, and I was rewarded with a fairly close-up view of this very display. You can learn more about their behavior from a video by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hosted at YouTube. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Making my way around the pond at dawn, this morning is a bit different from most. The pond is mirror smooth; the sky completely clear. Dawn turns into brilliant sunrise just before I pass a place where my shadow falls on a low bank to my West. I suddenly notice that I have not one shadow, but two. One is familiar, the kind you always see on a sunny day. But the second is strange — it's faint, and higher than the first.

Eventually I realize that the sun casts the first shadow. The sun's reflection in the pond's mirror casts the second one. Such a simple thing, but I've never noticed it before.

I wonder: what else in Life have I never noticed? What goes unnoticed can become seriously important at the least convenient times. Here are four questions that might make the unnoticed more noticeable.

What is here that I don't notice?
In the rush to get from wherever we are to where we're supposed to be next, noticing what's here right now often escapes us. We focus more on where we're headed than where we are.
Take in your surroundings with all your senses. What's here right now?
What do I think is here that isn't really here?
Expectations can distort observations. We see things that aren't there. For example, it took me six months to notice that the postal service had removed a corner mailbox in my neighborhood.
What assumptions are you making about your corner of the world? Have you tested them lately?
What isn't here, whose absence I don't notice?
When we When we focus only on what's here,
we can fail to notice what isn't here
focus only on what's here, we can fail to notice what isn't here. For example, in a regular meeting where people engage in annoying sidebar conversation, the absence of sidebars might indicate something important.
Noticing the absence of something requires imagining what can be, or remembering what has been, in spite of what is. Noticing what can be, but has never been, can lead to astounding innovations.
What do I notice mistakenly in place of something that is actually here?
Mistakes, misinterpretations, biases, and wishes can lead to noticing falsely one thing that isn't here in place of something else that actually is. When we experience fear and suspicion as a result of prejudice or superstition, we mistakenly notice what is not, instead of what is.
Haste can cause errors like these. Bigotry can too. How many other sources can you find?

How many simple things don't we notice? Noticing my second shadow took a special situation. But if you think about it, almost every situation is special in some way. I'm beginning to believe that in every situation, there is much that I never noticed before. Go to top Top  Next issue: Nonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails  Next Issue

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See also Critical Thinking at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Passing the baton in a relay raceComing January 24: Understanding Delegation
It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.
A serene mountain lakeAnd on January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.

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