I have been working on a personal project since the start of August.  It began as an exercise to try to improve or hone my skills of observation.  There was no particular driver behind it but I had been reading – John Rowland’s Cache Lake Country and Elleke Boehmer’s edition of Scouting for Boys, among others – and and the concept kept reasserting itself until it stuck in my mind.  I decided to try to watch more closely the environment and its changes in an area along my walk to and from the train each day.  It has turned into a daily photo blog, although I can’t see much during these shortened days.

The project is going well.  It has helped me to put some perspective on work and find good analogies between what I see in this microcosm and my daily activities.

Things Don’t Have to Occur on Your Schedule

There is a fox that comes through the area.  I have only ever seen him in the morning.  Although I am always at the train station at the same time, his traversal varies depending on the season.  As far as I can tell, he comes at the same time of day based on sunrise.  This makes sense – what fox has a watch – but it’s interesting to be reminded of people operating on different schedules.  If I don’t go out of my way, I usually see the fox regularly 2 times a year , as his schedule and mine converge.  Since I am tied to the 24 hour clock, I head into the dark for a few months a year and it is too light during summer for the fox to still be cooling his heels.

Even within an organization, whether because of different pressures, shifted work schedules, or poor planning, you can’t control how other people work.  They are going to come by with their request as it suits their environment.  We sometimes forget that we don’t necessarily have a shared work experience even within the same organization, which can lead to resource issues if your participation is expected but your work doesn’t align with the project demands or timeline.

Don’t Criticize Adaptation

The beavers have been making hay while the sun shone.  They have felled a number of trees and stripped them clean of bark, storing it underwater as provender for the winter months.  I’ve noticed some head shaking and heard people commenting on the damage that they’ve done.

But there are no predators for the beaver in the suburbs.  We’ve chased off the coyotes, wolves and bears are a bit further north, and the fox seems to be a loner.  Suburban development has created nice paths and nature areas and the animals along the river corridor take advantage of it.  They’ve adapted so well to the runners and cyclists that the beavers often will remain on the banks close to the river even when humans are going by.

If you create an environment at work and your employees or peers respond to it in a way that you didn’t anticipate or don’t want, it is worth taking a look at what you are doing.  It could be an anticipated outcome, or it could be that you made a decision that had unexpected consequences.  I know that it makes me more mellow when finding myself in the middle of personalities with disagreements.

This is easier to handle when someone else is making the power grab or lashing out because of control issues.  I find it easier to delay my initial reaction, which may be negative.  It is an important lesson for information technology teams, though.  Poorly conceived or implemented policies or systems will force people into shadow IT and workarounds to avoid IT mismanagement.

Under Anticipate

Snow was blowing past as I walked to the station.  The flowers from late summer and early autumn had now turned brown and the frost had killed off any bit of color.  I was watching out the train window as the day slowly lightened and, just a few stops further south, I saw two plants still in bloom – Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) and Common Tansy – that had already disappeared further north.  The weather might have been more mild, or they might just have been late bloomers.

It made me think about how we make assumptions based on expectations and, perhaps more commonly with lawyers than with other people, we try to anticipate what is going to happen.  I had assumed the flowers were gone everywhere, since that was the behavior I was seeing in my own area.

I am trying to under anticipate more now.  This may sound a bit crazy and I don’t mean to suggest that planning and preparation aren’t important.  But I know that I can sometimes try to anticipate questions for a presentation I’m preparing, or a reaction to a proposal, and either completely miss the mark or over prepare.  Rather than trying to anticipate all of the possibilities, I’ll back up and try to let some things happen and prepare as best I can.  Hopefully, some unexpected things will germinate.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Sometimes the change isn’t happening right in front of your eyes.  If I am watching the river to see the beavers, I may miss flowers that are blooming or other critters closer to hand.  I was walking through the parking lot and saw a bluebell.  It was the only one and disappeared soon after.  It’s impossible to see everything, whether you’re analyzing data in spreadsheets, mining social media, or analyzing a legal research question.

The trick that I’m working on is to make sure I’m refocusing more frequently, trying to take in broad views as well as closer inspections more often than I might have in the past.  It is easy to bury your head in your immediate problem – staring at the bark on the tree in front of you – and miss the other things that are changing.

They may not all matter to the problem you currently have but you can never know when something you notice or hear or learn from a colleague will be key to a future opportunity or project.  I remember this when I neglect to delegate Web development activities or get deep into data analysis, for example.  It may be that having someone else do a task allows me to step back and see more of the pieces, or that looking to closely at a problem makes you forget why you were looking in the first place.

It has also made me more keenly aware of using different senses or perspectives.  I was walking along and just scanning the sides of the path when something caught my eye.  I wasn’t really looking for it, but it turned out to be a cicada that was holding fast to a low weed.  Sometimes your peripheral senses will notice things if you relax enough to eliminate tunnel vision.

Another morning there was a high pitched squeaking coming from under a bridge.  I waited and saw what looked like two mink plunge out of a hole and head upstream.  It was the sound that had caught my attention and it was clear that something wasn’t quite right, even though I had no idea that the mink would appear.  Sometimes we focus on the expected and we miss the things that don’t look right.  Well, I suppose auditors catch those.  But I am hoping that I will become more curious about the strange emanations that occur each day.  It won’t be sounds and smells, but I expect there are other habits or modes of conduct that are just as invisible unless you think to consider whether they’re there or not.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.