Melanie Nelson

President at MRN Consulting

The First Step to Improving Outcomes Is to Notice Them

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Image: Rear Window (1954)

Mindfulness is all the rage in management circles right now, with articles arguing it will make managers more effective as well as healthier and less stressed.

Don’t let me stop you from trying this latest fad. It would be hypocritical for me to argue against it, given that meditation is one of my favorite aspects of yoga. I think the true benefits of mindfulness only come if you approach it as something more than a fad, but I’ll leave the cheerleading on that topic to others.

There is one aspect of mindfulness, however, that I would urge anyone to adopt: the practice of noticing things.

In particular, I think people should make an effort to really notice the outcomes of their actions. Too often, we’re in such a rush to get to whatever comes next, that we don’t really notice what just happened. That’s a problem — not because living in the moment will make us happier and healthier (although, for all I know, it might) — but because it deprives us of a chance to learn from our actions.

As a manager, I have learned a lot about management from research articles on the subject and from other people’s observations about their own experiences. But given the wide range of situations that managers face and the many variations in work environments, I can never be completely sure if what I’m reading or hearing is applicable in my particular situation. In many cases, I can only evaluate the utility of an idea by trying it myself and observing how things turn out.

I learn the most about management by noticing how the things I do work in practice, regardless of where the idea came from. That’s true both of implementation details and higher-level management approaches. For instance, being able to estimate how long a task will take is an essential component of project management. I am good at making those estimates, not because of any innate ability or magic tricks, but due to a long practice of making estimates, documenting them, and then noticing whether or not they were accurate. When they weren’t accurate — and at first, they usually weren’t even remotely so — I asked myself why and tried to learn what I’d left out of my original estimation so that I could do better the next time. That’s the benefit of paying attention to outcomes.

Similarly, an essential part of supervising people is delivering performance feedback. I am not sure I’d say I’m good at that, but I’m definitely better now than I was when I first became a manager. I improved by noticing the effect of my words — and then actively seeking to choose better words and deliver them at better times. I also noticed my reactions to feedback from others, and tried to emulate what worked and avoid what didn’t. Again, that’s a direct benefit of noticing outcomes.

When I try out a new management approach — such as “the five whys” process of understanding the root cause of a problem — I don’t just try it. I try it and I notice the results. If I don’t notice the results, I can’t learn from them and improve. Even if the new approach seems useful (as “the five whys” approach did when I first tried it), I am extremely unlikely to have implemented it perfectly on my first try. When I notice the outcome of my actions, I can work to make the methods I use as effective as possible.

For example, my first attempt to use “the five whys” approach with my team was a bit awkward. I struggled to get the team to speak up. Certainly some of that was due to the novelty of the method, but some of it was due to how I had framed the meeting. I opened with an explanation of “the five whys” process and an outline of how we should proceed. I think that started the meeting with too much talking from me, priming my team for a “listen and absorb” session, rather than a “participate actively” meeting. The next time I used the method, I emailed the details out ahead of time and was able to open the meeting with active participation from everyone, which set a tone that led to a more satisfactory outcome.

Of course, as that last example illustrates, just noticing outcomes is not enough. To really get better, you have to look for patterns, form hypotheses, and (if possible) consciously test those hypotheses. Most of the people I work with are trained to do those later steps, and I suspect most of the people reading this article are, too. After all, analyzing and interpreting data is the core of what many of us do at work.

For some reason, though, many of us fail to turn that analytical attention to our management duties. If you want to improve as a manager, consider taking a page from the mindfulness fad. Don’t just react to the outcomes of your past actions. Really notice them.

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