You Can Observe a Lot By Watching – Yogi Berra

watchingbyAliaQunhuaFlickrCCThis is the second post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one can be found here.

The great American baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra, said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

That quote popped into my mind when I was on a phone call with a group of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. We were on a great 90 minute call with those working on projects in Africa when one participant shared this story. The following is a total paraphrase!

I received this drawing of a septic tank from one of our colleagues in India. Looking at it, I saw it was a great design, but I closed the email and moved on. A few months later I visited and saw the remarkable tank and realized what a breakthrough it was and thought, why did I just close that email a few months ago? Why didn’t I share it with a colleague in Africa who I knew would be interested? What was it about that face to face moment that crystallized the learning for me?

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” All humor aside, I’d like to greet that with a rousing “Yes, AND…” The AND is that we are getting so programmed for efficiency, and addressing every little blip on the radar screen that we miss the importance of the things we are ostensibly “watching.” When we go into the field, many of those distractions are electronically de-tethered. We focus, focus, focus on what we actually see in front of us. We ARE watching with all of our attention and thus can reflect on the importance of what we are seeing.

So is the solution to simply go into the field? Well, not so practical. Not so sustainable. Sometimes not even possible, especially for anyone lower on the project hierarchy. It is not equitable.

So what do we do?

We are currently initiating two experiments to try and solve this problem. I’ll share the first here, and save the second for a follow up post. (Focus, focus, focus!)

Shared, Open-Topic Conversations

One is the semi-regular, open agenda telephone calls with subgroups of BDS grantees. The calls were initiated by the portfolio leader, as a response to working with the KM team and hearing needs from grantees. By walking the talk, our client is using his leadership position to invite conversation, versus disseminate requirements or content.

So far it feels like having between 8-12 people on the call is a good size. There is enough diversity, but not too many voices so everyone can have some air time and attention. We use a telephone bridge line and a shared note taking/chatting space. (Our “community technology configuration.”) Currently we’ve been experimenting with Meeting Words (

We do a quick check in, then each person is invited to share some insight about their current work. People use chat or voice to ask questions, answer, look for possible collaboration opportunities, but more importantly, pay attention for 90 minutes to thinking across the portfolio, not just within their project.

Because there are others there “listening” to us, we speak and pay attention differently than a quick scan of an email. My sense is that the more we can recreate the sense that we are together, the more this behavior shows up, rather than paying attention with half an ear whilst doing email and reading a note someone in the office just set in front of us. The shared note taking space helps focus attention and offer different means of engagement. We didn’t have it the first call and I personally felt less coherence. (That could just be me.) When we added it for the second call, people did not have to wait for “airtime” to talk – they could type. In addition, I did live note taking in the wiki side of the page and invited others to improve my note taking. In when the links! In went the correct spelling of a report. And we had very useful, collaborative notes ready by the end of the call. Boom!

The turn taking helps stimulate our past experience of being in a room, in a circle together sharing a beer or coffee, and simply talking with each other.  It helps the shyer people know there will be a space for them, even if they want to pass. It evens out some of the inevitable power dynamics of funder/grantee, boss/team member.

At the end of the second call we asked ourselves if we found value in the call and the meeting words and the quick informal feedback was very positive. I was even surprised at how positive. What did we do right? What could be improved? We still need to answer these questions.

The final piece of these calls is just starting up – following up with sharing of mentioned resources, setting up follow up actions for pairs with shared needs or interests, and development of asynchronous discussion threads of topics identified as useful for more depth.

My key questions going forward on this include:

  • How often do these calls need to be to build sufficient trust and practice to be, and be perceived as valuable and worth the time spent? In other words, what is the heartbeat of this practice? Time is always the scarce resource, so value MUST exceed time spent. This raises the question of what metrics help us understand received and perceived value. Is it important to have metrics or is informal feedback enough?
  • How will the proposed follow up items emerge and how will we discern the value of these experiments? Will we succeed in sustaining asynchronous interaction or is that even another step away from the “face to face attention.” Again, what are our metrics?
  • Finally, if these calls continue to provide value, who else would benefit from/want to attend? How far away from those in charge of the grants should we go? I personally think we miss a LOT by not having these conversations with front line staff, but it becomes increasingly logistically challenging and time is that darn choke point.

Have you done informal, regular knowledge sharing calls? What have you learned about convening them? Measuring their value? Let me know and I’ll share it back around! Because, after all, you can observe a lot by watching, right? J

  1. Rachel Cardone posted this response over on Facebook (Quoted w/ Permission)
    nice! Kudos for using a cheap / free route, too. I wonder if the 8-12 folks could suggest a colleague to participate in a “clone” call, perhaps reflecting the different types of work going on, and again using the free software? We must move away from this “I have to fly halfway across the world for 2 days just to be there/see it” mentality. An alternative to a regular call which I’ve been noodling on for a project I’m working on, is the idea of a hotline / swat team to help periodically. It strikes me that having a loose network that has some time to build social capital would make that type of “hotline for help” more viable, esp. across organizations & cultures. Hm. much to think about. Looking forward to our next walk!!
    7 hrs · Like

    And I responded:
    Nancy White Funny, I was just turned on to this tool which is about those spontaneous swat/helpline moments – and I think your identification of the network piece is critical. May I copy your comment over to blog space?

    QiqoChat – Speed Networking & Deeper Idea Exchange
    QiqoChat is a fun and interactive way to ask friends…

  2. Great reflections, Nancy. Thank you.

    To answer your invitation to share what we’re doing: Bo and I host an informal (optional) “study group” once a week for our World Cafe Hosting Fundamentals learning program at Fielding, and it’s been fantastic.

    The course has people from all over the world and I’ve been amazed to find participants from Japan and Hong Kong among the regular attendees (this is a real commitment from them as it’s 1 & 2am their time when we start the 1.5 hour study group).

    We use a rough “circle” format, and GoToMeeting software, beginning with a check-in so everyone has a chance to speak. We go “around the circle” alphabetically, which everyone can see on their GoToMeeting control panel so there’s no need for me to interrupt and call on people. It just moves naturally.

    After everyone has spoken, I will usually start a period of open conversation by pulling something from the check-in that feels juicy, and if the conversation lags or hits an “end” I might put out another lead or two to see what gets picked up.

    GoToMeeting has a chat feature that can be directed either to the whole group or individuals within it, so the shyer people have an outlet (I usually slow down the process by reading these comments aloud if others don’t notice them and integrate them themselves), and I can check with people who are quiet privately and see if they are engaged and being served by the conversation.

    About 15 minutes before the end of the session, I usually pull together a little summary of key points and ask if there are any last thoughts, and I end with some orientation to the next week’s work/assignment.

    We haven’t done anything formal to measure the value of these sessions – although they will be evaluated by the students along with other elements of the course at the end – but attendance levels (these sessions are completely optional and don’t count towards the course requirements), quality of engagement, and informal participant comments make me think their value is quite high.

    Personally, I find a lot of value in them … the questions being asked and issues being addressed inevitably open new ways of thinking for me.

    Thanks again for your story, Nancy, and the invitation to share. I look forward to hearing what others are doing.

  3. I forgot to say that the topic guiding the initial check-in is completely open – basically whatever is “up” for the participants, particularly in relation to the previous week’s work assignment or the one coming up, but not limited to that.

    • Amy, thanks for taking up the invitation. This is exactly the kind of practice stories that I find useful and I hope my colleagues do too. You are a very skillful facilitator and summarizer. How important do you think that role is and do you see participants taking up that role? (I’m thinking sustainability here…)?

  4. Well, gee… thanks for the compliment. 🙂

    To be honest, it depends. Much of the time I don’t actually do much “facilitating” except to “hold the space” and give the occasional gentle prompt, and in this context (a learning program where people have paid to learn how to do this for themselves) I do think it’s important to be there and give “just enough” support.

    But you’ve got me thinking … I usually do take on the summarizing role myself and your question has made me realize I could just as easily ask someone else to summarize, which would be better modelling and give others an opportunity to practice weaving the threads of the conversation together themselves.

    I can always count on you for a wise meta-view. Thanks!

  5. In fact, I could ask someone in the course to volunteer as the “host” for that session… which would give them much needed practice in a completely safe environment. I tried doing that in an earlier course and I don’t think I gave enough initial support or structure because it didn’t work very well – no one took me up on it, and people seemed more disoriented than empowered by the invitation. But this time I think it would be more useful to the group.

  6. It is a tough transition, sometimes, to transfer these roles over. But if a group holds together over any amount of time, I think it is worth it. I then move from facilitator, to facilitator coach to finally just hanging out on the sidelines!

  7. Hey Nancy,

    Thanks for sharing the thought-provoking article peppered liberally with questions and observations.

    I like the story of the drawing of the septic tank. As for why the crystallization only happened F2F in the field, I think it’s becomes sometimes ideas and connections need to percolate subconsciously. Then, in a way that can seem almost intuitive later on, the connection is made.

    I lament society’s ever-increasing expectation of efficiency. We’re expected to move so quickly, digest information so expertly, and create so swiftly and accurately, it’s a wonder we have a moment left to *see* anything at all. Challenging myself to really hear, see and be with colleagues can be as simple as thinking, “Take your hand off the mouse. It’s okay, turn around.”

    I’m curious about the heartbeat of the practice. As you say, “Time is always the scarce resource, so value MUST exceed time spent.” In meetings (regardless of whether F2F or online) I can often tangibly feel people wondering, “Why am I here? Do I need to be involved in this conversation? Is this the best use of my time? I’m so busy, I have so much to do.” It’s like the demand for efficiency and the comfort of one’s own project silos can regrettably trump the value of broader, purposeful sharing, in which I see great value.

    I think sometimes the value of sharing of this nature emerges and expresses itself in surprising ways.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece!

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