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.