We’ve all experienced déjà vu, the feeling that we’ve seen something before, even when we haven’t. Flip it over. Have you ever experienced vuja de? That’s the sense of seeing something for the first time ever, even though you may have actually seen it many times before.

The Innovator’s DNA is a book that explores a skill set for those that think differently. Jeff Dyer, one of the authors of the book along with Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen, recently worked with my team at Adobe, giving an exceptionally interactive talk that proved both valuable and invigorating.

The book reveals an innovator’s skill called associative thinking, a cognitive style that connects the unconnected. Developing the skills that enable innovators to connect those dots that others can’t even see comes from learning to think in terms of associations. The ability to make connections between seemingly disjointed things, according to The Innovator’s DNA, is supported by additional discovery skills, one of which is observation.

Watching someone perform a task, especially if you’ve seen it a hundred times, can render the scene almost invisible. How do innovators turn commonplace observation into inspiration, transforming what others miss into a huge success? They practice. Constantly. Dyer suggests it is a 24/7 type of behavior. What do they do that is so different?

  • They actively engage all senses—listening, tasting, touching, smelling, and seeing—dovetailing them together for deeper understanding of a task.
  • They explore new environments, watching people in other countries, different industries, competitor’s companies, and even social situations to observe how a task is handled.
  • They look for surprises as people use products in different and unintended ways.
  • They look for anomalies and workarounds, revealing possible areas of improvement or new product development.
  • They seek answers in natural structure, function, and organization—i.e., the use of “biomimicry” in honeycomb construction for strength, geese changing leaders for different parts of a journey, and gecko feet for stickiness.

Observation skills come naturally to some, but improving is an exercise for all. The Innovator’s DNA advises setting up regular outings to watch people in action, 15 to 30 minutes at a time, as they perform a task using a specific product. Ask yourself, what job is really trying to be accomplished? How did they initially discover the product? Did it appear to be harder to use than it should be? Is frustration an issue? Does the product appear to meet their functional, emotional, and social needs?

We do a couple of things at Adobe that use the power of observation to improve customer experience. One, we use Web focus groups, assisted by a third party, and ask participants to perform specific tasks, such as researching a product, finding pricing, and making a purchase. Their experience and feedback proves invaluable, lending insight about cumbersome or confusing links in the customer experience that might not be readily apparent to those who have worked closely on a project. The callout here to digital marketers: use an outside resource to help find weak spots.

We also have a customer immersion program in place that sends executives into a customer support center to perform tasks while talking to a customer service rep, observing what works, what doesn’t, and where we can improve. These live, authentic scenarios are truly eye-opening, and as a call to arms, marketers, I highly recommend the third-party, role-playing, interactive process.

Executives and managers are often insulated from the real world, sometimes necessarily so by a rigorous schedule. It is imperative for innovators, if they are to discover truly unique, effective solutions to real problems, to expand their sphere of knowledge. Others can do it for you, but there is no substitute for your own personal experience.

Get out there and observe. Identify the job that needs to be done, and understand the functional, social, and emotional parts of a task to help you untie your company’s Gordian Knot, releasing the reins on innovative solutions. Watch for the casual case study coming up in my next post for a real-world example of how observation led to innovative discovery for my team. Until then, turn off the autopilot, open your eyes, and observe the world around you to begin thinking in terms of associations.