Get Better Ideas by Paying Attention

Could it be that simply paying attention could make us more innovative?


The basic premise behind On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz is that we miss a lot of important stuff, all the time.  She opens by saying:

You missed that.  Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you.  You are missing events unfolding in your body, in the distance, right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an uthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses…

This ignorance is useful: indeed, we compliment it and call it concentration.

The book, which is wonderful, recounts eleven walks that Horowitz takes with others that allow her to see the world differently, to pay attention to the things that she normally misses.

She sees her neighbourhood in Manhattan through the eyes of her nineteen month old son, her dog. and entomologist, an artist, a typography expert and others (see Maria Popova’s discussion of the book here).  Through these walks, Horowitz learns a great deal about what she normally misses.

One of her main points is that even in the seemingly simplest settings, there is far more information available than we are able to process.  If we try to process every piece of data in a forest, or on our street, or in our house, we will end up so overwhelmed that we will be paralyzed.  We have always suffered from information overload – it’s not new at all.

As it turns out, I was missing pretty much everything. After taking the walks described in this book, I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders. My deficiency is one of attention: I simply was not paying close enough attention. Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. I reckon that every child has been admonished by teacher or parent to “pay attention.” But no one tells you how to do that.

Horowitz spends the rest of the book trying to figure how to best pay attention..  By walking with her son and her dog, she has to empathize with their views of the world to learn what is capturing their attention.

Empathy is one part of the equation, and expertise the second.  To think about this, take a look at this picture of a swee waxbill that Nancy took last year in South Africa:

Swee Waxbill

First off, look at the depth of field – the bird is in focus, as is the grass it is eating. Everything else is blurry.  This is what attention looks like – we select a small amount of data to process, ignoring the rest.

Now, think about what people with different expertise can observe in this relatively simply picture.  Birders  like me see the bird.  A botanist can tell you about the grass, and probably about the plants in the background as well.  In addition to that, by looking at the plants, they can tell you what part of the world that is, what kind of climate is there, the characteristics of the soil, and so on.  An entomologist can tell you about what bugs you could expect to find.

It’s knowledge that lets you see more than just “hey, a bird!”

In his terrific book Creative Intelligence, Bruce Nussbaum also uses birding as a way to think about innovation:

As a birder, I’ve learned to look and listen for what shouldn’t be there. What’s unusual. What goes against popular wisdom. It involves a certain amount of domain expertise—I’m certainly a better birder now than I was when I began fifteen years ago. But even if you’ve yet to amass experience in a particular field, you can still improve your chances of spotting the surprises you may not be expecting. For birders, it can mean going to strange and sometimes unsavory places. When I was in Singapore for a design conference, I went birding at a municipal waste treatment facility and found a number of birds—including one black swan. It was a rarity in Singapore and a good find. I was surprised, but not shocked. I was, after all, looking for what was not supposed to be there. Just as good detectives are trained to hear the dog that did not bark—so too are good scientists trained to look, and listen, for what’s not there.

We can combine empathy and expertise to find opportunities to innovate.  We can do this by seeing things that others miss – by paying attention.

Part of this is pattern recognition.  It’s the expertise that helps us recognise patterns that might be unusual and easy to miss for others.  This skill becomes even more powerful when we combine expertise in different domains – it is at the edges and borders that the best ideas often lie.

Part of this is seeing as others do – empathy.  By seeing from their perspective, we can combine this new view with our own skills and expertise to develop innovative ideas.

We have to filter to make sense of the world – there’s no way around it.  But when we fall into routines, it means that we are overfiltering – we end up missing important and interesting things.  If we can figure out ways to relax our filters through empathy, or to change them through learning, then we have a chance to see something new.

That’s paying attention.  The reward we might get for doing this is seeing a great new idea.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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