Leaders notice.

They notice when something’s going well.  They notice when it’s not.

They notice who’s engaged and contributing, and who’s disengaged and coasting, or even worse, disengaged and causing damage.

So it makes sense that if you could increase your ability to notice, you increase your ability to lead.  A leader who is blind to what’s happening around them is like a faulty thermostat that can’t gauge whether the temperature’s hot or cold, and so never turns up the heat or adjusts the air conditioning.

Noticing is something we do all the time

No matter what your current level of perceptiveness, you can improve your ability to take in what’s going on by understanding the process you already go through in order to notice something.

Each of the four steps of noticing is something we all do anyway.  We might not, however, do them in the right sequence, or we try to rush through a step when we’re stressed, unsure, or short on time and patience.

Here are the four steps of noticing, and the mistakes we sometimes make around them.

The 4S process of noticing – Scan, Select, Synthesise, Serve

Noticing goes through four steps.

It all starts with the raw data of life:  things you see, hear, touch, smell, taste and think.  Before anything else can happen, you are (usually unconsciously) scanning all this information.

Then you make a decision to select some of that information as important and you throw away what’s not useful.

Thirdly, you take that selected information and make sense of it by synthesising it, or putting it together in a meaningful way.

And finally, you do something with what you’ve synthesised.  You serve.

The 4S process in action

Let’s look at a meeting.

The raw data is the information being spoken, but it’s also body language and tone of voice.  Scanning that information will lead you to select some of it to focus on, for example, an angry voice is likely to be something you’ll select.  If you add to that angry voice some crossed arms, you’re likely to synthesise that information into the conclusion that someone is disengaged or unsupportive and you’ll take action – or have a reaction – based on that decision.

Where it can go wrong

Normally you will go through the noticing process effectively, but when things don’t go your way, here are some reasons that might be happening.

You haven’t scanned enough

If you don’t have access to useful raw data, your noticing is severely hampered.  For example, in that meeting if you don’t visually scan the room you mightn’t notice key body language that could indicate frustration, or could indicate support.  You might take silence as acceptance when a glance around the room could tell a completely different story.

Always be willing to go back and get more information if you truly don’t have enough.

You’ve selected the wrong data

You will tend to focus on the data that you understand most, know the best, and that’s important to you.  So you may end up discounting what’s truly important.

Collaborate with others who have different perspectives than you in order to reduce the risk that your blind spots hamper your results.

You’ve come to the wrong conclusion

Even when you’ve got the right data and selected what’s needed, you still could come to the wrong conclusion when you bring it all together.

You’re going to get it wrong sometimes, and that’s normal.  When you do come to a conclusion, it can help if you are able to find a way to test it out.  For that person with the angry voice and crossed arms, ask them if they have a different opinion to the one being presented.  You might find out they do, or you might find out they’re impatient because they’re feeling like they don’t need to be there.

Keep practicing

Now that you know the process that you go through in order to notice something, it doesn’t mean you need to mechanically work through the process every moment of your work life.

It does mean that when you anticipate challenge ahead, you can better prepare yourself by paying special attention to the raw data around you, testing your assumptions, being ok with being wrong, and being willing to backtrack through the process to re-scan, re-select and re-synthesise.

And that’s how you’ll increase your leadership capacity.

And your ability to serve.