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To Boost Your Eye For Details, Apply The Tools Of Military Leaders

To see details that swirl around you, all your senses need to work overtime. And that takes training.




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Military leaders activate their senses to notice relevant details and assess a situation. They learn to spot patterns and draw quick, accurate conclusions.

Such acute awareness doesn’t come naturally to most people. As Leonardo da Vinci observed, the typical person “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling … (and) inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance.”

The military’s top brass take a “slower is faster” approach to boost their situational awareness and to see details, says Pete Newell, a retired U.S. Army colonel.

“When something is not correct, you pause to look at it,” said Newell, chief executive of BMNT, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based consulting firm that focuses on innovation.

How do you get your team to act like military leaders who see details that others miss?

Track Changes To See Details

In the military, it’s important to compare what you see to what you saw earlier. Seemingly minor changes can pose major threats.

“In Iraq, I knew where the potholes were,” Newell said. “If the next day I saw a pothole filled in, that’s a sign of a possible IED (improvised explosive device). You become hypersensitive to the state of things around you and how they should be. Establishing a baseline is critical. Then you look for details that are out of whack.”

Pause To Refresh

Activating your observational powers takes mental energy. It can wear you out to be on the lookout 24/7 for subtle details.

“Stress and exhaustion are very real for leaders,” Newell said. “You need to step away and refresh and reboot yourself” to maintain your edge to see details.

See Details: Prioritize The Signals

Military leaders become adept at sifting through reams of data and plucking out the most relevant information. They scan the horizon for signals and prioritize the ones that matter most.

“When you’re on a submarine and you hear noise, you might have all this conflicting info,” said L. David Marquet, a former nuclear-powered sub commander and author of “Turn The Ship Around!” “Is it a fisherman with a diesel engine? Is it a decoy? A lot of it is noise in the background happening at the same time.”

Test Your Ability

Give your team a chance to test their skill to see details. Have them survey a scene briefly and then identify what they saw.

As a training exercise, Marquet would usher a few officers through a cramped machinery space in his submarine. They had about eight seconds to check it out.

Afterward, he’d ask them, “What did you see?” The most observant ones might have noticed a bit of rust on a pipe or a screw sticking out slightly.

“You can’t fix problems that you can’t see,” Marquet said. “So you want to test how well you see things and get to where you see more.”

Tom Gordon, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, used a similar test with his team. He would show a photo or stage a scene, give them a quick look at it and quiz them later to assess their eye to see details.

“We call it Kim’s Game,” Gordon said. “It raises their situational awareness.” (Kim stands for Keep In Mind.)

Stay Calm To See Details

You’re more apt to see details if your mind is clear and uncluttered. Stress makes it harder to notice what’s going on around you.

“You want to stay calm, cool and collected,” said Gordon, author of “Marine Maxims.” He says that “60 beats a minute” Marines excelled because their lower heart rate aided their performance and powers of observation.

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