Steve Jobs just looked different. Didn't he?
No, I don’t mean, “Steve Jobs looked different,” in the judging-a-book-by-its-cover, shallow appearances kind of way. Although, Jobs did wear an unusual amount of black clothing and I’m not sure what was up with the ever-present turtleneck. I digress.
Steve Jobs lived by the motto, “Think Different.” But it was how he observed the world that let him stumble over the same things as others while seeing something completely different than the rest of us. Jobs opened his senses to the world in a way that permitted attentive, original perspective. He looked different.
Disruptive innovators seem to be seers.
Possessed of an apparently supernatural vision, they see through obstacles and around corners and into the future that is dark for the rest of us. Maybe, though, the Oracle of Delphi thing isn’t quite so mystical – so out of reach for us mere mortals. Maybe we, too, can look as different as Steve Jobs.
Before we go on, please take a look at this video:
You probably saw the gorilla. I didn’t see any damned gorilla.
Like 50% of those who watch the video, I was so focused on people passing basketballs that I completely missed the man in the ape costume. The gorilla test is the brainchild of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons who cataloged a profusion of perceptual foibles in their 2011 book, The Invisible Gorilla. If the unseen gorilla exposes our observational kryptonite, Jim Gilmore’s new book, Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills, provides the antidote.
Jim Gilmore is a looker.
No, I don’t mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense of the word, where they define “looker” as “an attractive person. For example, ‘Marie was quite a looker before the sausage mill incident.’” It’s not that Gilmore isn’t a lovely-enough looking fellow but I’d rather leave that for others to judge. By “looker,” I mean this is a man who knows how to really look at things.
Gilmore’s well-honed talents of perception have resulted in best-sellers like The Experience Economy in which – along with his business partner Joe Pine – they identified the shift from companies selling products (a can of coffee beans) and services (a cup of coffee ordered at Waffle House) to companies staging experiences (like Starbucks). He’s such a looker that his looking goes beyond ordinary bounds. “My family tires of my incessant observations about what is happening around us at any moment in time,” Gilmore told one interviewer. “I'm cursed with an insatiable appetite to observe and analyze. Cursed, I tell you!”
Jim Gilmore is a lateral looker.
“Lateral Thinking”, first articulated by Dr. Edward de Bono in 1967, refers to a set of creative-problem-solving processes and tools that help break conditioned thought habits and provoke new patterns and pathways that lead to fresh ideas. An acolyte of Edward de Bono, Gilmore has embraced two major lessons from de Bono in Look. The first is how to think differently so that you can produce radically better actions and results. Gilmore acknowledges that lateral thinking must precede fresh and fruitful action but, with Look, he also adds enhanced observation skills as an essential predecessor to productive lateral thinking.
The second de Bono component that shines through Look is that lateral thinking is a practical, learnable skill when supported with the right repeatable tools. De Bono is especially well known for practical systems for applying his ideas that are based in metaphor. For instance, the Six Thinking Hats is a metaphor in which different modes of thought are represented by different colored hats. You and your colleagues can agree to take off or put on different hats (that is, adopt different mindsets…optimistic, pessimistic, generative, fact-based) in parallel as you sort through a challenge together.
De Bono’s Six Action Shoes method is a framework for taking action grounded in the idea that there are six different styles of action we might take to bring an idea to life. The shoes represent those styles and – like the hats – can be donned or doffed depending on the problem-solving terrain you’re traversing. De Bono created hats for thinking and shoes for acting but, Gilmore observed, one formative tool set was missing – the one for observation. “My goal was to distill observation and boil it down to a set of vary practical tools,” Gilmore said. So he invented Six Looking Glasses that are the heart of the Look book.
Optician: You need glasses.
Patient: But I’m wearing glasses.
Optician: Then I need glasses.
Gilmore's Looking Glasses
Optometrists exist because sometimes our eyes don’t work as well as we wish they would. They prescribe glasses or contacts. The right lenses can change our viewpoint, too. Here are the six lenses or looking glasses that Gilmore recommends we keep in our innovation field bag:
Binoculars – They let you see a whole lot at a distance. With a binoculars mindset, you explore the forest, not just the trees. “Scan the scene,” Gilmore writes. “Survey everything to see the options for further exploration.”
Bifocals – Ben Franklin’s inventions are one lens with two distinct focusing powers – for instance, look through the bottom of the lenses for reading, look straight ahead for moderate distance. In Gilmore’s metaphor, putting on your bifocal glasses means examining contrasting ideas or opposite items in close proximity. It is this type of observation that can help overcome bias by recognizing other viewpoints.
Magnifying glass – When it is time to deeply investigate something, to scrutinize a particular aspect of a situation or a thing – especially, the main point, bring out your magnifying glass.
Microscope – Sometimes you’ve got to take your time and zoom in on the all the little details…that is where the Devil hangs out, after all. Pull out the microscope for looking when you need to make sure that all niggling elements are uncovered.
Rose-colored glasses – Seeing the potential in what others ignore requires the eyes of an optimist. If you don’t happen to have those handy, put on your rose-colored glasses and come up with all the possibilities.
Blindfold – A blindfold isn’t a looking glass. It’s the OPPOSITE of a looking glass. Or is it? Gilmore threw the blindfold into the looking tool kit because closing our eyes and looking inward is an often overlooked but clarifying reflective process. What’s in your memory? In your mind’s eye? In your gut? Can you describe what your intuition looks like? As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Blindfolded, you are looking upon the process of looking itself.
It isn’t enough to have these looking tools in your innovation bag. You need to know how and when to use them. Binoculars, for instance, let you scan the full field upon which action of interest to you is taking place. They let you see the big picture. From there you may dive deep with a magnifying glass or – deeper still – with a microscope. But it is a good idea to step back from your close looking and look through your binoculars again at the situation in the middle of your looking and at the end. That’s when you need the perspective that binoculars bring.
Did you ever avoid eye contact with a teacher so they wouldn’t call on you in class? You might not have been humiliated with a question for which you were ill-prepared but you probably didn’t get an “A” either. Underachievement, stagnation and lack of innovation may be related to our tendency to actively look away from what is uncomfortable. As individuals and in our businesses, we often avert our eyes from scary, painful things and potential problems. We may “take our eyes off the ball” and suffer from “blindspots.” We may even hand over the act of looking to others.
Curation is the buzzword du jour of the content marketing world. Whether our information is digitally culled or hand-selected for us, we live in a highly curated era; a world of filters. Others decide what we should see and may advise us, too, when to look away. Yet, excessive reliance on curation may just be the abdication of curiosity and observation. When you hand over that skill to others, your own curation capability is likely to shrivel.
To look closely at the world in an unencumbered way – with untainted openness - to really see it and to savor it – good, bad and ugly – is a basic human right.
Jim Gilmore delights in that kind of looking and in seeing things differently and in helping others to do so, too. “Observing the world enriches your life,” Gilmore says. “People may want to revisit how they spend their time with their eyes. What do you choose to look at - have you looked at your kids today?”
If you want to see what others miss; if you want to dramatically ramp up your innovation efforts, get a copy of Jim Gilmore’s new book, Look.
And, keep your eyes open.
Words by Andrew Dietz