Seeing things you don’t expect to see

Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse recently produced a case study focused on Alex Ferguson’s managerial secrets, gained during his 26 years as manager of Manchester United. *

Ferguson’s observations, discussed with Elberse during a visit to Harvard in the early months of the 2012-13 season, are an excellent list of tips and guidelines for any manager striving for success – at a football club or for that matter in any other business.

All of his observations are insightful.  But one in particular resonated with me.

“I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing, but I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”

Effective managers clearly need to observe what is happening in their work unit to ensure that the work gets done in time and to the right standard.  Most people would say that observation is a core part of a managers role and doing it well a key skill of a good manager.

But as Ferguson states, having the ability to see things you don’t expect to see is what sets extraordinary managers apart.


Being able to do that is tough.  As the saying goes, “A fish can’t see the water it’s swimming in.”  When we work in an organisation we are part of its culture.  We influence it and we are also subject to it.  And as we become more and more a part of it, it becomes increasingly difficult to observe it objectively and without prejudice.  Observation is most valuable, particularly when the quality of what is being observed is subjective, when it is impartial – difficult when you are part of it.

How well do you see things you don’t expect to see?  And how do you know?

Perhaps one clue is how often you notice things that surprise you.

Interested in your examples of things you’ve observed that you really didn’t expect……


*By the way, the full Harvard Business Review article by Elberse is here: