The art of artisinal observation

MiG 15 cockpit. Image: Combatace

We are creatures shaped by our senses. What we see determines what we feel, and the other way round. What we see and feel determines what we think and what we think determines our actions. Observing is a critical skill.

Yet, despite the fact observation has so much impact on our lives, we pay so little attention to it. When we’re busy, we’re so busy doing that noticing takes second place – if we’re lucky.

In John Boyd’s OODA loop, the first “O” is observation for a reason. He derived his model from his own observation in Korea that despite having an inferior aircraft (the F86 Sabre versus the Russian MiG 15) the Americans won nine out of ten encounters because, he worked out, it had a bubble canopy offering all round visibility rather than the MiG’s more enclosed forward facing one. The Sabre had better all round vision. It was that simple – the pilot could see more of what was was going on around him than his Russian opponent.

We don’t learn that well. In business, we have our heads buried in the cockpit reading an ever increasing range of instruments, relying on them to tell is what is going on rather than getting out amongst those we serve, not just to see an all round picture, but to engage our other senses. We find ourselves perfectly informed about where they’ve been, but not where they’re going. We lack engagement and empathy with their surroundings. It means we are easily surprised. Terminal in a MiG, just career limiting in business.

At the other end of the spectrum is a young child. I’m lucky enough to have a two year old grandchild staying with us at present, and it’s instructive. Observation on steroids. Noticing everything around him, and curious about all of it. New words, new connections and combinations of words to express them tumble out at a mesmerising rate.

Like many of us, I was too busy earning a living to be there to notice it with our children, which I regret. I would have learned some of what I understand now earlier and more effectively, as well as been a happier soul. I’m pleased to say that thanks to Lockdown and working from home, his father is not making the same mistake.

Somewhere between the adult in business and the two year old is the Artisan.

Artisans have acute powers of observation as they turn an artists powers of observation into something we can value and exchange. Michaelangelo could see what he imagined inside the marble, and just removed the parts that weren’t The David. Watch a potter at the wheel with the slip – it’s a relationship with something that responds, not just a passive material.

In his book “Sand Talk“, Tyson Junkaporta writes about Aboriginal relationships with their surroundings, and how they see Rocks and Trees as entities to be recognised and respected. Move them or harvest them without their felt consent at your peril. I find it a powerful thought as we carve up ancient woodland for HS2.

Artisinal thinking is not limited to physical materials. I know those who code who have a similar relationship with the code they write – Steve Jobs was notoriously obsessive about”clean code”, beautiful scripts, and calligraphy. I know accountants who obsess over the clarity of the accounts they create. The series 1 Lotus Elise was designed by Julian Thompson and Richard Rackham to Colin Chapman’s ethos of lightness, performance and minimalist beauty. I’ve had mine for twenty five years and it still makes me smile. Artisans, all of them.

In most of the work we do, observation and awareness is the difference between the work of an artist and the work of a hack. The increasing challenge in being a hack is that technology can hack things better, and cheaper. Hacks will be suddenly surprised.

We don’t forget how to be curious, we just get too busy and distracted. We would all do well to recover the curiosity of our two year old selves.

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