Sunday, July 19, 2015

How to OBSERVE Insightfully and Systematically

"Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed." - Einstein

Of the four phases of the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), the first phase seems to get the least attention. The first thing in problem-solving via Systems Thinking is that one should observe the problem neutrally. On-observation, how critical is it, and what’re the disciplines, stages, tools or frameworks to help you OBSERVE insight-fully? If you have decision platforms; tactics and checklists for acts; model systems for orientation. What if any of them are the support tools you use in observation, and what practices have you found useful in developing that skill?

There are three stages of “Observation”: The best observations come from (1) staying still and trying to understand what you're observing is all about. So staying a novice of some sort, keep fresh eyes, with the beginner's mind. Then try to do the very things you've been observing because it will bring much more insights when you try to fiddle with it. (2) Secondly, what you see depends very much on what you are familiar with and on the parading - there is no such thing as pure data. (3) Thirdly, cognitive science confirms that what you see depends very much on your goals and on what you concentrate on given the limited amount of working memory available.

There are three essential disciplines to observing - (1) First is to use multiple models that have different assumptions and are about different aspects of reality; (2) the second is to look deliberately and for evidence that contradicts the model (and this approach is codified in OODA); (3) and the third is to consciously manage the models you use, to continuously evaluate, update, and redraft the models you are using. These three are core disciplines in systems practice. "Observing" is primarily about the information signals coming 'in'; the input in the input-processor-output-feedback model; Because there are so many potential signals, the successive iterations of the OODA loops process reduces the scope/ level of the signals down to a set for a particular purpose: a situation of interest; a feedback loop; a learning loop; a viability, sustainability or evolutionary imperative.

Orientate also guides HOW to Observe: The "Observe" phase is, all about the 'sensors' that you can deploy. Clearly these are very dependent on what you want to observe! So - perhaps - the methods that are to be used to "Orient" will to a large extent drive the choice of sensors. Usually, the Orient act refines the acuity of Observe. A single pass through OODA rarely occurs. The content of WHAT should be observed is set by the Orientate - as Einstein said "Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed." Taking "orient" down to a basic level, it implies that you have a map that may or may not apply to the territory. The first things you need to know are "which way is East?" and "what is the mapping symbol for East" in order to orient yourself using the map. No matter how accurate the map may be, if you can't orient it to the terrain, it's useless. And the map can't tell you which way East actually is. It seems that sometimes using the model to validate and guide the observation process is a recipe for confirmation bias while using observations to evaluate the model is far more likely to lead to real-world positive outcomes.

Systems Thinking as a paradigm to observe: The tools being used to "Observe" would be those that help you build the model that you will use to "Orient." In the original domain of OODA, that might have included radars, sonars and all the other ways of determining "situational awareness." The nature of the tools may be quite different in other domains, but, they will always be "gathering intelligence" about the situation whether it be through BITE to monitor for equipment failure or to better understand the intent of a "competitors" of some sort. Observe to be the act of estimating what is a reality, then Orient to be the act of What it means, now and Then. So as to purposeful tools or practices for Observe, Systems Thinking provides a paradigm to observe meta levels and contexts and multiple viewpoints. System Design principles remind us that we are in a purposeful design process and can create specialized channels of information for specific purposes. Systems Thinking will need OODA implemented in the normative and systematic way. Initially, there are six typical stadiums to start the planning process:
a. Identification Problems
b. Methodology
c. Assessment
d. The Alternative
e. Control
f. Evaluation

Observe, observe, observe more, through your cool head and sharp eyes, and don’t forget to leverage Systems Thinking. Systems Thinker will do so with his/her eyes open to the relationships interwoven surrounding the system, whereas the unsystematic thinker is blind to the chaos he/she creates in his/her wake. It is always the first steps either for practicing innovation or decision making; for being a thoughtful human being or growing into an empathetic business leader. Keep on Observation!


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