Observation | Keys to Empowering Change

Photo, National Cancer Institute, USA on Unsplash.

In writing the accompanying article on Monitoring, I soon realised that observation as a stand-alone topic is huge and warranted its own space. In this part, I go into detail to clarify what observation is and the challenges it presents us with. Moreover, I discuss why it is a critical component of monitoring and a vital part of the change process and importantly, how we become good observers.


“People’s minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”

Will Rogers

New paradigms begin with great observation

I am a scientist and I instil in my students that great science starts with great observation. So many discoveries made either serendipitously or from the result of years of hard work and dedication were built on keen observation. Like all scientific discoveries, new paradigms also begin with careful observation.

What then is observation? To start with, observation is more than just seeing. This is true whether we see something visually (with our eyes) or through an instrument or some other technology. Observation requires looking at something, and really noticing what there is to see and learn. The image we see or collect with an instrument is our data and close inspection of our data is how we begin to make observations. This morning I looked at our tomato and chilli plants growing in our greenhouse and I noticed that the leaves on our chilli seedlings were turning a yellow colour instead of the usual green colour I expect. Noticing that the leaves were yellowing was my observation. However, simply looking at the seedlings with a casual glance without taking the time to inspect more closely and notice the yellowing leaves, is seeing without observing.

Be curious with what we see

How then do we progress from merely seeing something to observing something? The first thing we need to do is get interested in what we want to observe. This is a choice. While an eye for detail really helps us to observe, it by no means compensates for a lack of interest. Then, to build upon our observations we need to be curious. Again, this is a choice. We choose to be curious by asking ourselves questions. What does this mean? What is the data telling me? What else is there to see and learn here? The distinction between seeing something and observing something is that observation requires us to take an active, curious interest in what we see.

New outcomes stem from curiosity

In 1912, Harry Brearley was making erosion-resistant gun barrels using steel alloys containing 6% to 15% chromium. Brearley tested his new guns and found that the ones made with high-chromium percentage steel were brittle and shattered when fired. Brearley threw the shattered guns on the scrapheap. Days later he was walking past his scrapheap and noticed that while most scraps were rusted, several pieces remained bright and shiny. Curious, Brearley investigated further and found that the shiny pieces all came from steel that was high in chromium. Although this story might be embellished, the result is that Brearley’s observation and his curiosity led him to invent stainless steel.

Photo by Jorge Tung on Unsplash

Likewise, it was Allan Savory’s observation and curiosity that led him to question what he’d been taught in university that large numbers of animals, especially domesticated livestock, were the cause of land degradation. Savory observed in regions in Zambia and Zimbabwe where large numbers of animals had been removed either by disease or human intervention that the land was actually degrading further and not recovering as he’d expected it would. Savory could have ignored what he’d seen, however, his curiosity caused him to question what he’d been taught: if animals were the cause of land degradation, why wasn’t the land recovering in their absence? It was his curiosity that drove Savory to eventually find an answer. Thankfully, the answers to his questions, fuelled Savory to ultimately develop his framework for holistic land management to regenerate degraded land and prevent further desertification.

A key learning from both these examples is to not dismiss what you see. Rather, be open to the possibility that something else other than what you think or have been taught might be at play. Stay curious and open to new possibilities. Unfortunately, for analytical people like me, we attempt to reconcile what we observe with what we ‘know’ from our past and we are tempted to dismiss new ideas or observations. However, being analytical doesn’t help us when we confront something different that challenges our existing paradigms or beliefs.

Humans are governed by beliefs

Humans and the institutions we’ve built are governed by beliefs. Our beliefs are powerful and they determine whether or not we remain open and curious to new ideas and data. Our challenge is to remain open and interpret what the data is telling us without influence from our bias and beliefs. Our biases not only prevent us from seeing what is there to see they also influence what we observe, and how we collect our data i.e., what we want or hope to see. Rather than be subjective and influenced by our beliefs, our goal is to remain as objective as possible during the entire process.

Consider this hypothetical example of measuring soil organic carbon. The depth we perform our measurements will influence the outcome we observe. If our bias is to show a change in soil carbon and we know we are more likely to see changes in the top 10 cm of soil compared to a depth of 100 cm, to gain favourable observations (data) we might only measure soil carbon at shallow depths. However, if our bias is that soil carbon levels will not change, we might only measure at depths greater than 30 cm. Our challenge then is to put aside our beliefs and biases and remain as open as possible to 1) how we initially set ourselves up to gather observations and 2) the data we observe.

Humans struggle with new paradigms

Although we like to think we are highly evolved the reality is that even today, humans still struggle to accept new ideas. Think of climate change and the resistance of many sceptics to the concept that 1) our climate is changing rapidly and 2) human activity is at the source of the change.

Photo by Ken Cheung on Unsplash

Consider in 1510 Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun and his idea met with great resistance especially from the church. Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847 said the simple act of washing hands by physicians before examining women in labour would drastically reduce maternal death encountered major disbelief from his fellow doctors. In more recent times, Barry Marshall showed that stomach ulcers were the result of a bacterial (Helicobacter pylori) infection and not stress, yet his results were met with resistance from the medical community. To emphasise his discovery, Marshall drank the bacteria to give himself ulcers and then treated himself with antibiotics to cure his ulcers. Eventually, Marshall’s findings were accepted and in 2005 he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. As these examples highlight, we haven’t changed that much; humans still resist new ideas that challenge existing paradigms and the status quo.

Observation is a learnable skill

Some people are naturally better observers than others either blessed with an eye for detail or abundant curiosity. Thankfully, observation is a skill we can all learn with some effort, willingness, and commitment. Where possible engage a mentor or teacher as they will help us improve our powers of observation more quickly. I recall being a student learning to use a microscope properly. Sitting beside the supervisor with the microscope image projected on a nearby screen, he pointed out things to me that would have taken me years to see for myself. As in my case, a good teacher draws our attention to things that we otherwise might not notice thereby accelerating our learning.

Observation is a critical to monitoring

As discussed in part 2, monitoring is an intentional process about what we want to observe, when and with what frequency. Our powers of observation are critical because if we aren’t proficient observers our monitoring process becomes ineffective; we won’t notice what there is to see. Being good at observation goes beyond this too. Suppose we want to monitor leaf growth every week in our newly planted seedlings. Being intentional we set out to make our weekly measurements. We record our data and return home feeling pleased with our effort. This can be limiting. We set out to measure leaf growth and being intent on this, we fail to notice nearby plant species are dying in large numbers. Therefore, good observation is critical for the monitoring process and it also allows us to notice what else there is to see. As I’ve pointed out earlier, many discoveries have been made by observing something unexpected.

In summary:

• New paradigms start with observation, a skill we can all learn.

• Observation requires curiosity and taking an active interest in what there is to see.

• Our old paradigms and beliefs make it hard for us to accept new ideas and paradigms especially ones that challenge our deeply held beliefs.

• Great observation requires being open and putting aside our beliefs and biases.

• Observation is a crucial component of monitoring

• Observation and monitoring go hand-in-hand if we are to cause change.

• We need both if we want to succeed and achieve our goal.