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The Difference Between Seeing and Observing

The Art of Observation
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes teaches Watson the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The difference between seeing and observing is fundamental to many aspects of life. Indeed, we can learn a lot from how Sherlock Holmes thinks. Noticing is even something that Nassim Taleb has chimed in on with Noise and Signal.

In the video below, Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman, author of The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, discusses how important it is not just to be able to focus, but to be a good noticer as well. What he's really talking about is observation.

A number of years ago I had an opportunity to notice and I failed to do so and it’s been an obsession with me ever since. On March 10, 2005 I was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice in a landmark case that they were fighting against the tobacco industry. I was hired as a remedy witness. That is, I was hired to provide recommendations to the court about what the penalty would be if, in fact, the Department of Justice succeeded in its trial against the tobacco industry. I had spent a couple hundred hours working for the Department of Justice including submitting my written direct testimony which had been submitted to the court.

I was scheduled to be on the stand on May 4 where the tobacco industry attorneys would be asking me a series of questions. On April 30, a number of days before my May 4 testimony I was in Washington D.C. to meet with the Department of Justice attorneys to prepare for my time on the stand. When the day started the Department of Justice attorney that I had been working with said to me, “Professor Bazerman.” This occurred long after he had learned to call me Max. He said, “Professor Bazerman, the Department of Justice requests that you amend your testimony to note that the testimony would not be relevant if any of the following four conditions existed.”

He then read to me four legal conditions that I didn’t understand. When he was done talking I said to him, “Why would you ask me to amend my testimony when you know that I didn’t understand what you just said to me.” And his response was because if you don’t agree, there’s a significant chance that senior leadership in the Department of Justice will remove you from the case before you are on the stand on May 4. To which I said, “Okay, I don’t agree to those changes.” And his response was, “Good. Let’s continue with your preparation.” I was jarred by the fact that something very strange had occurred. But I was overwhelmed in life. I was trying to help this case and I didn’t quite know what had occurred. But to this day I’m critical of the fact that I took no action. I did appear on trial on May 4 and the trial ended in early June.

But on June 17 I woke up in a hotel room in London. I was working with another client at the time. And I woke up early at 5:00 a.m. and I opened up The New York Times web edition and I read a story about Matt Myers, the president of Tobacco Free Kids, who had come forward to the media with evidence about how Robert McCallum, the number two official in the Department of Justice, was involved in attempting to get him to change his testimony. And I then read basically the same account that I had experienced back on April 30. Matt Myers had the insight to know that he should do something with this information about what had occurred in terms of the attempt to tamper with this testimony. And at that point it was straightforward to come forward to the media to speak to congressional representatives about what happened. And my own role received media attention as well.

But to this day I’m still struck by the fact that I didn’t come forward on April 30 when, in the back of my mind I knew something had occurred. The reason I tell you this story is because I think a lot of our failure to notice happens when we’re busy. It happens when we don’t know exactly what’s happening. But I think it’s our job as executives, as leaders, as professionals to act when we’re pretty sure that there’s something wrong. It’s our job to notice and to not simply be passive when we can’t quite figure out the evidence. It’s our job to take steps to figure out what’s going on and to act on critical information.


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