A voice from the entrance to my cubicle spoke, “We’re meeting in the Central Conference Room. Come now.” I’d heard this meeting was imminent and was prepared with my ideas. One of our leading products had recently seen sales fall off sharply, and it was still early enough in the fiscal year that maybe we could ideate our way out. I hurried to the conference room and joined a tense ideation session already in progress.

In a windowless room, ten people around a rectangular table were taking turns tossing out their ideas. The Business Director wrote the ideas on the board as the Vice President stared at the list silently. Leveraging all of my knowledge and expertise on the product, I offered an uninspired idea. At the end of an hour, we had assembled dozens of uninspired ideas that would prove insufficient to solve our business problem.

In hindsight, it’s clear this approach would  not have worked. Leveraging my expertise to improve product performance was my job, and the job of all the others in the room. How could locking us in a windowless room with a white board and a stressed out Vice President change what we already knew about the business problem? It couldn’t. No one had come prepared with any new information that would inspire creativity. No one in that room demonstrated any empathy for our customers. No one was data-driven in their approach. No one had taken any time to even list out the assumptions we were making, let alone to verify them. No one was learning.

Later in my career a wise leader shared a bit of advice with me. “Triple check counterintuitive results,” he’d said after I asserted a bold claim that I would later prove untrue. It’s easy to fall into such a trap, for it takes less effort to assert what you believe than to challenge what you believe. When the risk of being wrong is severe, the strongest innovators have the mettle to test assumptions and challenge conclusions, even when it may slow progress. To solve our sales problem, we should have slowed down to speed up. We should have gathered data, synthesized it into insight, then validated our insights with customers, or at least with more data. The role that was missing in that conference room was the Observer. 

Eight Traits of the Observer Archetype

The archetype of the Observer conjures up imagery of a smart, quiet, reserved employee seated in the corner of a room and speaking only when spoken to. But this doesn’t have to be how an Observer shows up. Let’s explore eight traits of the Observer archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. The Observer will thrive when given the time and resources to deeply explore a problem or opportunity.
  2. The Observer is inquiry-oriented, more interested in learning from others than relying on their own deep expertise. They will ask great questions to unlock insight, and tell compelling stories to inspire new thinking.
  3. The Observer works closely with the Initiator to frame business problems and team objectives so teams can find and implement creative solutions. 
  4. Observers work well with Experts striving to develop actionable insights that unlock new possibilities in problem solving.
  5. Observers stay grounded in impartial data and factual information. Others may lack the patience that the Observer shows synthesizing disparate data and eliminating bias from decision-making.  
  6. Observers may become frustrated when teams solve problems utilizing approaches that don’t put customers or data at the centre of the conversation.
  7. The best Observers will partner with Teammates to work on team effectiveness. Where the Observer may be the first to identify destructive team stressors or conflicts, Teammates can coach others into assuming more constructive and creative roles.
  8. The Observer will represent the voice of the customer and of the employee as teams define and solve problems.

While different Observers will excel at a different blend of traits, the common thread is that Observers favour learning over knowing.

The Observer Role in the Learning Organisation

An innovative organisation is a learning organisation. It challenges the status quo to solve problems in unique and creative ways, a result which requires strong and accurate problem definition. The Observer is the employee who falls in love with problems, not the solutions. Observers are relentless in finding root causes, continuing to drill down long after others would have stopped trying. The strongest Observers don’t just dig deep, they scan the horizon for signals, both strong and weak, which may change their organisation’s landscape.

The Observer role cannot stop, however, at identifying problems to be solved. They must examine problems closely to generate unique insight that can be addressed by their teams. They must surround themselves with people who have different skills and perspectives. And, they must develop the acumen to inject insight into work processes at appropriate times. 

In the learning organisation, Observers will represent the customers’ perspective. They will understand customer needs and pain points. They will learn to identify sub-surface or latent needs. The best Observers will develop a voice for employees as well as customers, recognising and communicating the stressors introduced by innovation and change. 

Inquiry and Empathy

Observers know that they don’t know everything, that they, alone, can not know the best answers. Instead, they are hypothesis-driven. Through their questioning, they develop a grounded understanding of what is working and what is not. They develop strong hypotheses that can be tested in controlled environments. Using this blend of inquiry and empathy, Observers are able to develop deep insight into the problems that customers, businesses, and employees face.

The Observer’s empathy muscle is one that is always flexed. Constantly aware, the Observer excels in listening, questioning, and learning. The strongest Observers appreciate and understand sources of bias; they challenge the assumptions and assertions of others, and of themselves. All of this effort to uncover the richest insight is in vain, however, if the Observer does not possess or develop a storytelling skill to communicate these insights effectively to those who are in a position to develop solutions.

If I were able to do it over again, when asked to join an emergency brainstorming session to resurrect a struggling product line I would approach the meeting differently. The meeting I participated in was a meeting of experts who lacked problem definition, refined insight, and customer intelligence. Could the outcome of the meeting have been different if I had listened instead of opined? What if I had been empathetic to, and represented, our customers’ point of view? What if I were aware of the bias we were introducing into our problem solving? As it were, no one in the room actively played the role of the Observer, and our energies were ultimately wasted. I cannot blame just my actions in that room, however. If I had approached my entire job as an Observer – using more inquiry, and ultimately more empathy – our outcome would likely have been quite different.

Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He will profile each of his eight archetypes in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.