The Most Powerful Type of Observation

Today is an exciting day for young Jeremy. Mom is going to walk him through how to bake cookies. She often makes these delectable, delicious treats, and Jeremy looks forward to when he can enjoy their sugary goodness. It doesn’t matter what kind she makes; chocolate chip, oatmeal, or peanut butter, they are always amazing. And now Jeremy is going to help make them.

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Mom sets up the stool so Jeremy can sit next to her and watch with rapt attention as she gets out the tools. Everything is spread across the counter; a mixer, a rolling pin, some measuring cups and spoons, a baking tray, and a myriad of ingredients.

She asks young Jeremy to measure out the flour and sugar and put it into the bowl. He does so, making a bit of a mess and taking a bit longer, but happy to be involved. And so it goes, adding ingredients, stirring them together, shaping balls of dough, watching them bake in the oven, and waiting impatiently as they cool. Finally, it is time for that first bite. YUM!

The Benefits of Participatory Observation

You probably didn’t realize that I just described the process of participatory observation. Your mouth is salivating at the thought of fresh-baked cookies (okay, mine is too), but we've described an extremely valuable technique you can use as a Business Analyst.

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Just like young Jeremy, with participatory observation, you get to actually be involved in completing the task. You assist and even perform some of the steps yourself. You stumble a bit and make some errors, but you learn really quickly how the process actually functions, and maybe even an understanding of what could be improved. Studies tell us we learn better when we actively participate in a task. More than hearing about, reading about, or watching, when we are doing the task, we learn and understand more completely.   

And what do you learn? For one, you learn that a skilled person might not understand just how complex their own task is. When you try it out, you’ll discover that certain tasks are more in-depth and complicated than they first seem. You might see a better way to perform a task because you struggled through the old way. You might identify areas where adjustments are needed, or where first-time operators will struggle. Maybe you come up with a whole new, and more efficient, way to achieve similar results (raw cookie dough anyone?).

I love the participatory observation model of problem discovery. Just like the cookie metaphor, there’s something deeper about joining in and performing a task than simply sitting back and observing. Your depth of understanding may even lead you to better solutions.

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Want to learn more about how you can use observation and other similar techniques to appropriately identify problems and opportunities within your organization? Then check out a free preview of our Identify and Define the Problem online course. We hope to see you there!

Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner - The BA Guide