Noticing and the Art of Paying Attention

How can we see things anew amid disruption and complexity? It’s about not just seeing but paying attention.

Noticing is about paying attention to what’s around us. You might think that would be an obvious thing that didn’t need pointing out, but the fact is we miss a lot of things right before our eyes.

Consider our remarkable inabilities to see gorillas wandering through basketball games or embedded in a radiology scan. There’s a substantial body of evidence to suggest that selective attention bias creeps into our lives everywhere, including in expert practice. A related issue is also prevalent: we fail to notice things not out of selective attention, but lack of attention altogether.

This ‘art’ of noticing is something that Rob Walker has spent much of his life paying attention to. This is about noticing, not just seeing things. He recommends things like going on ‘scavenger hunts’ around your home, life as ways to build your muscles for noticing what’s around you.

Noticing is one of the things we have available to us at any time and when faced with uncertainty and enormous complexity. It is not just about ‘seeing the forest for the trees’, but seeing the entire ecosystem.

Channelling Boredom

A TED Talk by Manoush Zamorodi on boredom provides a great introduction to the role of boredom in boosting creativity. Boredom can also serve as our call-to-action. Writing in the Behavioural Scientist, James Dancker suggests that boredom serves as a marker for meaning — allowing us to discern what is important to us. This is a way of tapping into our subconscious and helping us to see through the clutter when we’re presented with an overwhelming array of choices. The lesson? Allow your boredom to signal where to take your next wise action — and maybe your life. 

Boredom provides us with a means of relaxing the stimulation around us to be able to briefly disentangle the cognitive and perceptual relationships we have with what’s around us. It allows us to see what’s there and not there. Mindfulness practices do the same thing. They provide us space to notice things we didn’t before — see things hidden in plain sight, expanding our attentional focus and allowing us to ‘see’ more — maybe even gorillas.

Physician and economist Anupam Jena has focused on how this ability to see things differently allows us to overcome the biases we have to see what’s in front of us. He calls this the difference between seeing and looking.

Evaluation as a Tool for Noticing

Evaluation is about systematically exploring value. When we start looking for value, we start noticing things. When we start noticing things, we see value. You might not think of evaluation as something that can help us see differently, yet channelling the power of focus and curiosity through systemic inquiry into your programs, services, and products is exactly what harnesses new ‘eyes’ to see what’s in front of us. It’s the reason why the phrase below from Marcel Proust serves on the masthead and homepage of my company, Cense.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”     – Marcel Proust

While much has been said about the current times. It might be time to notice, too. Evaluation (and the learning tied to its inquiry) is the one guaranteed useful outcome from complexity. As organizations scramble to figure out what they ought to do next, evaluation of what is happening right now and what they are doing might be the way to notice the value hidden in plain sight.

Thanks for reading. If you’re looking for more materials on evaluation, seeing differently, or dealing with complexity this blog has many resources as does Cense.ca — which you can also visit if you need help in doing any of this.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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