Photo courtesy of Jim Gilmore

Innovation Begins with Observation

Jim Gilmore, coauthor of The Experience Economy and Authenticity, focuses on seeing in his new book

If someone in your office has the title of Chief Experience Officer, you can thank Jim Gilmore and his co-author, Joseph Pine II. After laying out the emergence of an economy based on the time consumers spend in engaging in experience in their first book, The Experience Economy, they coined the term Chief Experience Officer in their second book, Authenticity. Now Gilmore has struck out on his own to examine ways that business people can gather useful information in his new book, Look, A Practical Guide for Improving Observational Skills. He developed six ways of looking using the metaphor of six different lenses: a binocular, bifocals, a magnifying glass, microscope, rose-colored glasses, and a blindfold.

MNBIZ: What do you mean, innovation begins with observation?
Innovation depends upon your thoughts, but your thinking should be based on your looking. Observing actual behavior tells a lot about people’s motivations, their attitudes, their unfulfilled needs, their unarticulated needs. It’s a much more fruitful place to go to as fodder for any innovative effort.

MNBIZ: I’ve heard the adage, if you really want to know what a person’s thinking, look into their eyes.
Yes. Look at their body language, their action. I was doing field observation at a gas station and observed a woman at a pump who left her car door open the whole time. Well, that’s interesting. Why didn’t she close the door?

I asked, “Why do you keep your door open?” She said, “Oh, to listen to my music.” If you’re doing gas station pump design, they’ve all put screens in, so they’ll blast advertising at you. Why don’t they think about Bluetooth technology where you can close your door and have your phone broadcast on the speaker? Then you can listen to your own music while you’re at the station. I don’t know if that’s a good idea worth implementing, but you only come up with that idea with first observing the behavior.

MNBIZ: Let’s go over your six models of looking, your six lenses.
The six glasses are metaphors for different ways to improve your sight, just like any physical eyeglasses do. Binoculars are about surveying and scanning, finding a vantage point. In some sense, seeing all that is there. For example, I’m going to be doing a session in Las Vegas with a group who will design their own looking tour. Well, what’s a vantage point to see Vegas? You could go to some roof-top lounge and just get the layout of the place. If you walk down Las Vegas Boulevard, look at what’s at the opposite side of the street.

Matter of fact, any time you go down any shopping street, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Las Vegas Boulevard, Madison Avenue, keeping a distance lets you survey more. You see more looking across the street, what all is there, versus when you’re immediately upon it. What all is there? What might we want to explore more fully before we go examine something in particular?

MNBIZ: Is that like the big picture?
Gilmore: It’s the big picture. If you’re deep in the trees, get out of it and just go look at the forest.

MNBIZ: Okay. That’s binocular. What about bifocals?
Bifocals are a looking glass that have two lenses inside of it. You look up, you look down. It’s pairing two different views in order to compare and contrast. For example, no one’s ever designed a car for a woman. There’s no place to put the purse because people assume men get into the car. Well, let’s look how women get into the car, right? Let’s look at men getting in the car, let’s look at women getting in the car.

That’s bifocal. It’s comparing and contrasting two different views, and it overcomes confirmation bias because we all tend to look at things one dominant way. It’s a way of saying, take your dominant way and then pair it with alternative views and compare and contrast and see things you don’t normally see.

MNBIZ: Then you have the magnifying glass.
Think of your first use of a magnifying glass as child, which is often either zapping an ant or putting a hole in a piece of paper. The imagery here is pinpointing, or it’s spotting something of significance. Entering some space or situation, and the skill of looking and seeing what jumps out as significant. It’s new. It’s different. It’s unusual. Spotting things of significance.

MNBIZ: It’s like the Sherlock Holmes element.
Exactly. To find something seemingly insignificant that actually means something. I was with a friend in a Starbucks when I said, “Look at that piece of trash underneath that cabinet.” I spotted it. Just spotting; the people who work there should pick it up and throw it away. It’s clutter.

MNBIZ: How about microscope?
A microscope — like a magnifying glass — enlarges, but rather than spotting one thing to examine, a microscope is looking at all the details. An example of magnifying glass is the Watergate break-in. The security guard at Watergate spotted a piece of masking tape over the latch of a door and took it off. On his rounds later, he noticed the masking tape was back. A president resigned because he spotted masking tape.

Gilmore: I
f you think about it, if he hadn’t noticed the masking tape, Nixon would have finished his second term. Woodward and Bernstein would be just another pair of reporters.

MNBIZ: Next is rose-colored glasses.
That lens makes things look better than they are. I talk about two artists in the book, whose medium for their artwork is laundry lint. Most of us consider lint to be just something to throw away, but they look at it and go, “Hmm, free resource.” They say, “We don’t have to buy paper for papier mache.” Everyone else sees it as waste. But if they look at it with rose-colored glasses, and they’re much more appreciative of it. It’s not seeing the flaws in something. It’s only seeing the potential. 

MNBIZ: Asset-based thinking.
Exactly. Any time somebody says they had the right idea but you have poor execution, don’t see the poor execution. Only see the good idea. Many opportunities for innovation are there. People dismiss things all the time like, “Well, that doesn’t work.” Well, yeah, but look at the core concept. Don’t look at the poor execution. They’ll take the same idea, which is good, and execute it well. Boom, you’ve innovated.

MNBIZ: Then finally the blindfold.
Yes, I wanted to have one that was a counterintuitive lens. Obviously, a blindfold is cloth and not an actual lens, so it’s recalling what you saw. It’s recalling how you looked.

For example, there is research that there have been hundreds of incorrect convictions for crimes based on eyewitness identification in a police lineup. People have been misidentified because they’re all lined up. Those convictions have been overturned based on DNA evidence. There’s research that shows that if both the suspect and what they call fillers, so the extra people that also come on, if they come in one at a time, you’re more likely to have more accurate identification.

If you lay out six photographs on the table, they are more likely to make a mistake versus one at a time, because when they’re all laid out there, you’re looking and making comparisons versus one at a time. You’re looking at what’s out there versus what’s in the mind’s eye. That’s what blindfold is. It’s not seeing what’s out there. It’s recalling what you did see. I also think that’s a learnable and provable skill. These six different lenses provide a portfolio of skills to improve observation. Again, my contention is the more skilled you are at observation, you’ll have more fodder to inform your innovation efforts.