2. Observation (Creative Qualities)

November 12, 2019

And so I continue my quest to understand the heart and soul of creativity!

Are observation skills linked to being creative? Yes, I certainly think so.

Observation is often the first step in creativity and innovation. For example, Isaac Newton was able to develop his law of universal gravitation by observing how apples fall. Once gravity was observed, new ways of thinking emerged.

So … how do we improve our observation skills?

According to psychologist Albert Bandura, learning by observation involves 4 separate processes.


– Attention: The Observer watches and pays attention to the Model and the behaviour he or she exhibits.
– Retention: The Observer remembers the behaviour that was witnessed.
– Reproduction: The Observer reproduces a behaviour, which requires sufficient physical and mental abilities. For instance, a child may observe a professional basketball player dunk a ball but the child may be too short to physically reach the basket to dunk the ball.
– Motivation: No amount of attention, retention, or reproduction will overcome a lack of motivation. The Observer needs a reason to do it.

That’s the theory part but it got me thinking about a number of things …

Children watch and imitate adults all the time. I know mine do. My 4 year old pretends to be her school teacher, when at home. She lines up her toys and talks to them as though they are her students. It is fascinating to watch and makes you realise how important it is to showcase positive behaviour around others, particularly children.

The same rules apply in business. The best teams model positive behaviours, not negative ones.

I have a quick exercise for you…

To Do: Grab a notepad and pen and draw a picture of a whale. Right now, just go for it. Don’t overthink it. Draw a whale.

… have you done it?

Hopefully, you have something on your notepad that resembles a whale.

Now, if you type “whale” into Google images, how closely does your drawing resemble a real whale?

You may have missed some of the details but I bet if I asked you to draw another picture of a whale, the next attempt will have more detail. That is because you are observing the finer points.

Painters will usually spend a long time looking at their subjects in detail. That’s how they develop good observation skills. That’s how they know to include specific details in their work, even when the subject is not in front of them. Shape is often only the starting point. Artists also observe and become familiar with textures, colours, movement, and even the subject’s personality. Once the details are observed, the artist can actually bend or even break the rules to create something new …

I work with a number of illustrators and animators and I find their styles to be very subjective. No doubt, the time they have spent observing the world has influenced their creative abilities.

Over the last three years, I have recruited a small team of video editors. The best editors have great observation skills. Even if they are new to a particular technique, they manage to observe the finer details so they can start reproducing it themselves. Editors with weaker observation skills take longer to complete new tasks because it usually takes them more attempts to get it right.

My wife is a teacher and the term ‘Observation’ is a formal process in the education sector. Teachers watch each other teaching students. They do this so they can either learn or offer constructive advice and ultimately improve the teaching level within the school.

It is a very conscious methodology that unfortunately some businesses do not adopt. The temptation (that I know from experience) is to throw tasks at other people and let them do it in isolation. The problem with that approach is it doesn’t provide much opportunity for observation and that can hurt the company’s chances of success.

One of my biggest concerns as a business owner has been, how do we stay on top of our game?

When Captive North was founded nearly 9 years ago, the team consisted of only three directors, all under the age of 23. We had very limited resources and no experience of running a business. Everyday was a challenge because we had to devise and adopt systems and approaches for everything that we did. It’s often said that more than half of new businesses fail during the first year and I know first hand how difficult it is to succeed in that arena.

The story I used to hear most often about business owners is they previously worked in a large company for a number of years until they felt they were ready to branch off on their own. That makes a lot of sense because if an individual works in a large company, they will probably have the opportunity to observe a lot of behaviours and use that experience to increase their skill-sets and nurture their creativity.

I didn’t do that.

Instead, I did three years of university, a short spell as a freelancer and then I started a company. As soon as I became a business owner, my learning curve took a steep turn upwards and my observation skills went into overdrive.

The first people I observed were my team. I had not known my co-directors Mike and Sam very long when we started the company. They are very different personalities to me. In fact, one of the first things we did together was take a DISC personality test.

Perhaps if you get the chance to meet us, you can take a guess at which personalities we are.

I also took a different career route to Sam and Mike. I studied Film & TV production at university and focused on short films and movies. Mike studied Product Design at university and worked on events. Sam didn’t go to university and instead began his freelancer journey at the age of 17 and also worked in broadcast before I met him.

When the three of us started making online video content together, we had to adapt our existing approaches. The way we decided on best methods was based on observing best practice. When I witnessed Mike doing something really well, I did my best to reproduce his approach. That built a lot of trust. Fast forward to today and the three of us have this amazing short hand that we developed through observation that enables us to tackle problems very quickly and efficiently.

The next thing I observed was the industry itself. I took a lot of inspiration from more established video professionals and production companies. That informed me of the type of equipment we needed in order to achieve certain results that were popular and effective. The freelancers I work with also give me new insights because they bring their own best practices into Captive North.

One of my favourite things about being my own boss is finding my own clients. For the most part, I have worked with great clients, I haven’t had many bad ones. Knowing how to find and identify good clients is a skilled observation task. You start to recognise patterns of behaviour and I’m always honing my ability to recognise best behaviours in my clients. It’s vital not only for financial success but for personal success. I have a finite amount of time and I don’t want to waste it feeling miserable by working with the wrong people.

One of the best things I did as a business owner is get a mentor. It was well worth looking for support from individuals outside my business and even my sector. I call this term ‘Related Worlds’. Observing how others have achieved similar problems can often be the quickest way to success. Problems are rarely unique to only you.

So that’s Observation; creative quality number 2 on my list. More still to come! If you are interested in looking at your creative qualities and those of your team, drop me a message or a comment.

Thanks for reading.

Tom Marshall

Creative Director, Captive North