Learn To Observe


Teams and organizations these days are focusing on continuously improving their way of work. Trying to adopt new development approaches, tools or ways to organize their companies. One crucial aspect is being forgotten often in the heat of the effort. That’s self-awareness and especially observation skills that can help you in achieving better self-awareness. Because, if you truly want to continuously become better at what you do, you need to be aware of what you are doing at the moment.

What to observe and similarity to testing

I recently wrote a blog post about Observation & Interpretation, where I discussed about the difference between observing and interpreting. I suggest reading that before going further in this post as I will continue writing from the perspective of that post.

One challenge with observing comes on not knowing where to focus on. It’s a similar problem that you have if you are testing an application. I mean whole application. There’s so much to focus on that as a result you can end up wondering around without being able to gather enough concrete data about what you’ve learned.

In testing you can try to structure your testing with heuristics. Using James Bach’s Heuristic Test Strategy Model, you could structure your testing to focusing on Function (Everything that the product does), Data (Everything that the product processes) or perhaps Time (Any relationship between the product and time).

By structuring and focusing your approach, you will be able make more detailed observations. At the same time it’s good to note that skilled tester might explore freely an application without focusing and would still learn (a lot) about it. I would argue though that there’s some kind of structure often behind even that kind of exploration (e.g. focusing on what the product can do).

What to observe when it comes to how people work with each other

If you want to be aware how your team is working with each other, you need to be able to observe what’s actually happening. As with testing, you can structure your observations in several different ways. I learned couple interesting ways of doing that in Problem Solving Leadership course a while ago.

MOIJ Model

Jerry Weinberg introduced in the Problem Solving Leadership course (and I think in his book Becoming a Technical Leader) a model that consists of elements that are needed for a team to be able to solve problems effectively. This model can be used also for structuring you observing. Letters come from:

M = Motivation

Focus on your observations to notice e.g. supporting, encouraging, energizing, facilitating or peace-keeping

O = Organization

Focus on your observations to notice e.g. procedures, physical environment or time-keeping

I = Information

Focus on your observations to notice e.g. time to live of new ideas, summarizing, decision-making or clarifying

J = Jiggling

Focus on your observations to notice e.g. solving problems by going outside of boundaries of the rules or using jokes to defuse tension

Other things to observe

Besides MOIJ Model, there’s a ton of other things that you can focus on while observing. They are partly related to MOIJ Model, but approach from a different perspective.

Styles of talking

Are people using I, You or It statements? Questions? Declarations? Quotations?

The way people talk to each other

Do they wait that speaker has finished what (s)he has to say? Is subject being changed? How often? Do people answer to questions? Are everyone treated equally when it comes to listening and answering?


Who is being proactive? Who is being relied to? Who is being interrupted? Who is interrupting? Whose voice isn’t heard?

Spacial observations

How are people sitting? Do they change their place? What kind of furnitures are there (e.g. square table vs. round table)? How far are people from each other? Is there someone that is not close to anyone else? Are there noticeable groups formed? Who is sitting next to whom? Does it change?

Non-verbal communication

What kind of facial expressions people make when talking? How about when someone else is talking? Can you notice differences in tone of voice depending on whose question or comment is being responded to? What kind of posture people have? Do you notice laughter? Loud voice? Gender differences? Ethnic differences? Other differences? (e.g. consultants vs. in-house)

Be careful when reporting observations

Reporting observations is a delicate matter. Mainly because we haven’t got used to it. But also because people tend to give feedback that includes mind reading (read my blog post Observation & Interpretation)

As a thumb rule, I would recommend not inflicting observations. Instead ask first if others would like to hear your observations. And then offer them if they want to hear them. That way there’s optionality which brings psychological safety especially in the future.

Simple approach to structure your ways of reporting (one that I learned in PSL) is to divide it into

  1. Description (“This is what I observed…”)
  2. Interpretation (“This is how I interpreted what I saw…”)
  3. Significance (“This is how I felt about my interpretations…”)

I haven’t asked from Jerry (Weinberg), but one can see similarity to Satir Interaction Model on those reporting styles. Knowing a bit about Satir Interaction Model, you realize that you need to be aware of the possibility of interpreting incorrectly what you have observed, which will lead to interpretation being incorrect. Or perhaps you observed something that just wasn’t there. That’s why it’s often really important to check the intake (What did I see or hear or smell or taste or feel… - also known as Data Question).

As I mentioned on the blog post that I kept referring earlier, this is a skill that takes lifetime to hone. Perhaps the first step is though to acknowledge that we are not aware of what we are doing. That’s why we need observation skills to uncover what we are not aware of.