Why You Should Have an Observer on Your Project Team | TechWell

Why You Should Have an Observer on Your Project Team

Person holding magnifying glass, photo by Mar Newhall

I was in the back seat of a car listening to a conversation between the driver and front seat passenger. At one point, the driver misunderstood what the passenger said. The conversation quickly veered off course, each following his own line of thought. I realized what was happening and pointed out that they were discussing two different things. That got them back on track.

In that interaction, I’d taken on the role of observer. I’ve occasionally speculated that something similar might be useful to a team, considering people focusing on their work sometimes fail to notice communication glitches or patterns of behavior that could derail the project as well as their relationships.

With that in mind, imagine that someone on your project team has the role of observer. In addition to their normal responsibilities, this person would unobtrusively watch the group, identify noteworthy patterns of behavior, and provide feedback. Team members could rotate observer duties so that everyone gets experience at it. There’s no need to wait for a retrospective to resolve problems that can be resolved through observation in something closer to real time.

A starting point for introducing the observer role would be for the team to create a list of things that would be helpful to pay attention to, such as:

  • Patterns of complaints
  • Patterns of people interrupting or talking over each other
  • Evidence of miscommunication, such as the kind of I observed from the back seat of the car
  • How often people smile or laugh
  • Evidence that team members successfully avoided conflict—or didn’t

Observers can provide feedback as often as the team agrees to, such as at the first of each month, in the moment, or on request. Of course, for this process to be effective, observers must offer feedback in an objective, caring way, focusing on what they saw and heard rather than their own interpretation. In return, those being observed must try not to be defensive about the feedback offered.

As much as I find the idea of observers intriguing, I can see why it might not work. For example, team members would be likely to change their behavior when the designated observer was in the vicinity. People might feel like they’re being spied on. And both giving and receiving feedback takes some skill.

Still, if you’d like to practice observing, there’s a simple way to do so. When you attend meetings, put on your invisible observer hat and select some things you’d like to observe about the interactions taking place during the meeting. As a stealth observer, you may see far more than you expect. In the process, you’ll be refining your observation skills.

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