Just a short while ago, I realized what the role of an Active Observer means. I have never officially heard about a role like this and our team stumbled over it more by accident than on purpose. In this blog post I will write about what I learned on observation, Active Observers, communication rules and about the differences to seemingly similar roles.
Three aspects of observations
The Satir interaction model says, communication consists of four aspects: We see or hear something, we interpret the information, we assign a significance to the information and we response. The first three rules apply also to observations.
The first aspect is the observation itself. For example consider someone sitting with interlocked arms. You can see the expression of the face, hear what the person says or see what she does. There is no interpretation in it.
The second aspect of observation, we usually do reflexively, is to interpret what we see or hear. In our example this could mean that the person does not agree with what happens, but it could also mean that the person feels cold or that she simply considers her position as comfortable.
The third aspect is the significance of that information. If I am sitting in front of an open window and see someone shivering with interlocked arms, I could decide that I want to close the window. If that person sits there with interlocked arms and I interpret it as relaxation, I might not change anything.
Just like that a group might scatter away from each other in headless bustle or because they all know exactly what to do next. In the first case I might ask for clarification, in the second I might let them do whatever they feel appropriate.
We interpret information we see (or hear, feel, and even smell) by our experiences and patterns we have already in place. Our judgment of the significance is influenced by the information, our interpretation, and the current situation.
Different observation foci
At PSL we learned that observations are crucial to our leadership skills. We need to train our observing skills to act on our observations instead of acting on mere ideas, which may or may not apply to our current situation.
In some simulations at PSL we had the opportunity to focus on different objectives and even compare them. For example one part of the class observed the others on solving a task. We split our foci up beforehand inspired by a list we got of the trainers. Some were focusing on body movements of individuals or the whole group; one of my team members enhanced his focus by wearing headphones to not be influenced by sounds of the observed group. Then there were people who focused on volume, manner of questions or where and at whom people looked.
There are many possible foci on which you could concentrate. I found it very useful to experience a couple of different ones throughout the PSL and to see the differences between the outcome, and the style of how people took their notes. I learned that I needed to experience different foci to internalize them and finally be able to use a focus like “everything seemingly useful that comes to my mind”. After having concentrated on a specific observation focus I was open for that kind of action in further observations. So my suggestion is to set a slim focus first to practice it.
Until now everything I wrote was about observing in general. For Active Observation it is useful to practice general observation first. Active Observing also consists of three aspects: It means stepping back from “active duty” of a group, it is purposeful application of the third observation aspect and it means feeding back your findings to your team.
You might find patterns, sense a panicking team or team members who lack a piece of information. If you can confirm this by observation facts you might create an environment with your team where real teamwork can take place even if the team does not know each other well yet.
In our PSL course we had a simulation I wanted to take a step back and only observe my team. I wasn’t supposed to take an active part but decided to do so after seeing my team (who knew each other for just 4 days then) was struggling with the task and even each other. There were some very obvious pieces of information missing but nobody seemed to notice. I raised my hand and spoke up. This had an immediate effect on the communication of my team and I stuck to the role.
With a real purpose behind my observations it was easier to look for important information. One simulation after that we were as close as a team working together for months instead of days. Everyone was convinced that the Active Observer role was an important contribution to the team building part.
As an active observer you focus on your observations and their interpretation plus your assignment of an importance within the current situation. While you are observing actively you are normally not capable of (and not supposed to) doing anything else.
Yet you are still a full-fledged team member. You serve the team by constantly interpreting and evaluating your observations and helping the team see what they wouldn’t otherwise. Your vision should be to help them doing their best by feeding them information.
In a team of programmers who work with agile methodologies that might mean you’ll find a full-time job whenever the team interacts. When everybody is programming/testing currently, there’s less to do but still even then you can prove useful as an Active Observer. A common dysfunction in teams is late asking for help. An Active Observer may find obstacles earlier than anyone who is involved.
Finding important information
You will have to practice finding the information they could use. Dependent on your interpretations and your judgment, the team will have valuable information available or not. Sometimes that might mean if you’re unsure if a certain observation might be useful you tell them that you discovered something and they need to decide how and if to act on it.
I had an experience when my team split up in smaller groups to independently generate ideas on a subject. In one group they were interrupting each other constantly. I was unsure if this was blocking single team members from contributing and decided to tell them about my observation. The group used my interruption to make sure no one was feeling ignored and that they all felt energized and full of ideas and decided actively to not change anything. Later on they told me that it was good to at least having made sure everybody was fine.
The more you practice, the more often you will see for yourself if an information is important right now or if you just keep an eye on a certain aspect to be sure no blocker is hiding out in seemingly productive bustle. The first thing you can do is to ask the team to gain more training.
Feeding back information
As an Active Observer you are supposed to feed back the important information you see to help your team. It is not always possible to find a non-disruptive way. My experience is that it works best to just raise your hand and standing up. That way, people can finish their last sentence and then lend you their ear.
It helps a lot if you know what exactly you want to say and if you only interrupt them if you really have something useful. These are basic facts for communication but I know how it is like to be over-enthusiastic and wanting to prove useful. If you don’t have anything yet, it is OK to be totally unnoticed by the team. This will help you being seen and heard as soon as you have something to contribute.