The power of noticing, Berlin and a window into your life

The power of noticing, Berlin and a window into your life

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of learning to notice.

It’s a skill that we can all develop and brings with it a wonderful ability to truly see what is happening around us. I often say that being a good leader means learning how to notice: to pay attention; to study; to see what’s really happening; to go and see for yourself. I’ve done a video and post on that topic here.

So, when I travel, I notice things.

I take lots of photos of things that interest me. Throughout this post (and please enable photos if you’d like to see them), are some select photos from a recent family trip to Berlin. We’ll get to why this is important in a minute.

And BTW – if any of my readers are in Germany (and I know a few are), I absolutely fell in love with your country. I’m even learning German so I can do more work there.

The study of others is really a window into ourselves

When I was studying my Media Science degree, back in the 90’s, it was commonly held in the social science circles that only one of the traditional social sciences was truly about other people, and that was Ethnography: the study of other people and how they live in their world.

The rest, Psychology, Communication, Sociology et al, were considered the study of ourselves – and how we fit into the world.

But my Communication lecturer had a salient point when someone raised this belief.

“How could the study of other people be about anything other than ourselves?”

What we choose to notice is a reflection of ourselves.

The judgments we make, what we chose to note down, what we decide is happening – are all reflections of ourselves. We see through our own eyes, we have biases, beliefs, opinions, ideas, thoughts, history and a frame that we always apply.

So, in reality, ethnography is really a study of ourselves (“The Ethnographic Self,” 2023) – how we view, see, notice and perceive other people.

And the same is true in our business worlds. What we choose to notice, the judgments we make and the conclusions we draw, are bound to be biassed by our own experiences, upbringing, beliefs, current interests, pressures and more.

When it comes to noticing what is happening around you, at work or in your own life, it’s really a study of ourselves. When we dive into what we are noticing, we reveal a lot about ourselves. And that can be enlightening to say the least.

  • What do we choose to notice?
  • What do we pay attention to?
  • What frame do we put around what we notice?
  • What goes on in our minds when we see things?

I am a fully fledged people watcher and have been since I was a young kid. I remember extremely vividly studying a man in a pub, in Scotland. We were on holiday as a family and I observed his lonely expression, the way he picked at the crisps he’d bought, the way he hunched his shoulders and avoided eye contact.

I concluded he was lonely and milling something over – I was about 5 at the time. It set me on a path to notice how people move and interact. Anyway, I digress.

By developing the skill of noticing and seeing, I’ve been able to develop a strong ability to read a room, spot non-verbal tells, see weak signals (signals of a future unfolding) and dig deep to understand what’s really going on in the workplace – to cut to the heart of the issue. I don’t have many skills but this one I do consider a superpower.

But I know deep-inside that what I choose to notice says more about me than what I’m seeing – and it’s a wonderful way of testing my own awareness, biases, judgments and beliefs.

  • Am I too narrow minded?
  • Do I make snap judgments too soon?
  • Do I stereotype too quickly?
  • Are there patterns in what I notice (is it people, places, environment etc)?
  • What do I not to notice?
  • And why am I asking so many questions?

I’m a keen photographer and filmmaker and always have my camera with me. Always. It’s part of my everyday carry. I use my camera to capture almost everything I can – and my notebook to capture what I cannot (or should not) capture with my camera.

Moving through Berlin

When I review my photos after a trip or commute, I try to understand why I took that shot, or what was interesting, or whether there are patterns that emerge.

I capture these “field note reflections” in a notebook for learning, future reference and because I’m a curation geek. I sometimes take photos of beautiful things to improve my photographic skills, but I exclude those from reflection – and post them to IG to chase likes instead.


On a recent trip to Berlin, I reflected that I was taking photos around three core themes (excluding the photos of my family posing).

Weak signals about how we work in cities.

My on-going study of weak signals naturally means I try to spot them. (I’ll be sharing these through the Meeting Notes project).

I focus on work, the places we work and how we navigate balancing work and life.

I’m becoming aware that working remotely, doing several “transactional” video calls a day and staring at someone’s face through a screen, is not healthy. I don’t think we’re designed to do this all day.

Are there any weak signals that suggests remote work is shifting again?

The contrast between historical and modern life

I love history and old buildings – I saw many in Berlin, but I also appreciate that modern work often needs modern amenities. This juxtaposition of old and new interests me.

I’m also pondering what would happen to our office buildings if the remote work movement continues. As more companies reduce their office real-estate it frees up buildings for other purposes.

I’m looking for weak signals as to what that may turn into: community centres, co-working spaces, yoga rooms, museums and art galleries?

Anything to do with publishing.

I have always been a keen publisher so this field of work has deep interest for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research about how publishing fits into corporate communications.

The ability to distribute has power – and this is something many managers and leaders don’t understand. They send a powerpoint via email, or do an all-hands session and consider their vision/strategy “communicated”. It is not.

There are many lessons we can learn from publishing that help leaders communicate. It’s not enough to rely on the grapevine – this tends to only work for gossip and vastly interesting news – not company announcements and strategy Powerpoints. If you own distribution you have publishing power.

An old underground lift. Love this type of architecture.

In work, as my role changes or my experience grows, I notice different things. At all times though, I am typically, at least at work, focusing on how people work, move and communicate within the business. There is always lots to learn, some weak signals and plenty of levers to pull for change once you truly see what’s happening.

But what I notice will not be the same as what you notice. What you notice will not be the same as Pete at No 42. Some people are better at noticing than others. Some people merely pay more attention. Some people notice but close their mind to what they’re seeing.

Some people pay attention AND are open to what the world offers – a rich place to see weak signals of the future or ways to shift the paradigms of your business. And some people sit inside all day and watch TV.

Taken from the top of Berlin Cathedral. I was interested in how expansive a city can feel - and what does everyone do all day?

Noticing is a behaviour that can be developed. It is a behaviour that sets people apart in the workplace.

It’s a behaviour that gives people the super power of reading body language, reading a room and sensing how messages are landing. It’s a behaviour that allows one person in a meeting to see the solution to a problem, or the idea that’s hanging around in the discussion but hasn’t been overtly drawn out, or the path through the complexity that no-one else sees.

It’s a behaviour that tells you a lot about yourself, if you choose to listen and learn from what you notice.

It’s a behaviour that leads someone to spot a new business idea, or find a unique way to help someone out, or see the real reasons a system of work is not working.

It’s a behaviour we can all develop merely by learning to notice.

Creative pursuits encourage you to develop this ability. To paint a picture of a meadow means noticing what’s in the meadow: the colours; the way the wind blows the plants; the structure of plants against the sky etc. Things we may not normally notice as we wander past distracted.

Learning to notice means you have to slow down – which, in today’s always-on-world, is not such a bad thing.

But learning to notice is only one part of it.

We can all learn to look around more and see more and study more. But I also believe noticing needs you to develop your thinking – to broaden your mind – and to be curious to explore what you have noticed and why. And then maybe look through that window into yourself, and grow because of it.

After all, studying what is happening around you is not really about other people, it is actually really about yourself.

I love a good bench - it means you have permission to be here. You can congregate and socialise here. You can study from here.