The power of observation

I came across a fascinating article ( about how Herman Miller designed a new hospital ward (I am writing this at home while sitting on my Herman Miller Aero).

What I found really interesting about this article was Herman Miller’s product development process. A lot of time was spent observing doctors, nurses, patients interact with one another and their physical environment, before the designers brainstormed and developed prototypes, that they played with and improved over time.

This reminded me of a conversation that I had with a candidate some six months ago. he was working for a top design company and I was surprised to hear from him that most of the company’s work now centred around consulting. They had successfully brought their strengths in observing human interaction and prototyping into the world of corporate consulting. Eschewing set frameworks, their consultants were given a lot of creative space to develop the best way to showcase the challenges that their clients faced. The example that stood out for me was when they asked the children of the Board to role-play certain boardroom behaviours and caught it all on video. It was a great way to present very sensitive critique.

At the moment, observation is still not considered a core skill in many MBA programmes. Instead, there is a very heavy emphasis on analysis, usually of data and information that is already processed and presented as an Annex in a case, or through spreadsheets of data points. However, real breakthroughs will come through a balance between analysis and observation. The Director of the Centre for India and Global Business told me how Nokia developed the world’s best selling mobile phone by sending a team to observe how consumers in India used mobile phones. They discovered that phones were also used as de facto flashlights and when they added that feature into their handset, sales skyrocketed in India.

I am interested to see how the CambridgeMBA class of 2010 strikes a balance between observation and analysis. There are some people with strong market analysis backgrounds, while there are others who prefer to observe. That includes the candidate I mentioned earlier. It all suggests a very interesting year ahead…

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