“A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you chose.” Sherlock Holmes
John Watson was shocked. Mrs. Whitney’s husband had been away way too long, and she had asked John to go find him and bring him home. Watson agreed, and now he finds himself looking for her husband among an opium den filled with addicts. It is here he bumps into a disguised friend and the shock results – he has bumped into Sherlock Holmes.
So begins Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” a story filled with typical Sherlockian fare: a missing husband, a murder suspect, a mystery to solve – brought together in a climactic moment when Sherlock Holmes solves what afterward feels like an obvious puzzle.
The key to this puzzle solving? Observation.
O is for Observation
This is the second part of a blog series titled, “The OODA Loop, SEO & Digital Marketing.” The goal is to provide a tool that accommodates flexible thinking, and provides a model for SEO and digital marketing success.
The tool featured is called the OODA Loop, a model presented by military strategist John Boyd as a way to think about change. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, and the focus of this post is the first word: Observe.
Directing Our Attention
In her book “Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes,” Maria Konnikova reviews abilities displayed by Sherlock Holmes, and writes about how these abilities can be translated into mental strategies that can lead all people to Sherlock-level clear thinking and deep insights.
In reviewing Sherlock’s observational ability, Maria says:
“Observation with a capital O – the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance – does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw away any old details up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics – and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.”
We see this in “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” At first Holmes is perplexed by the seeming disappearance or murder of Whitney’s husband, and the existence of the beggar Hugh Boone. It is only through keen observational awareness that Holmes discovers the husband and Boone are the same!
This observational awareness is something we should harness as well, and it is very important for SEO and digital marketing efforts. Let’s take a closer look at Observation and the OODA Loop.
In their great blog post about the OODA Loop, Brett and Kate McKay write that, “By observing and taking into account new information about our changing environment, our minds become an open system rather than a closed one, and we are able to gain knowledge and understanding that’s crucial in forming new mental models. As an open system, we’re positioned to overcome confusion-inducing mental entropy.”
Observation requires mental alertness, the ability to attentively engage while taking in new information. This engagement continues with a desire to open our minds to new knowledge, insight, systems and modes of thinking. This observational approach then puts us in the position where we avoid seeing our minds decline into disorder – and sharpened to see the important things in each situation.
Yet Boyd spoke of two potential problems of observation, highlighted by the McKays.
First, we often observe imperfect or incomplete information. For example, this happens when decisions are made via email. While there are observational realities within the text of an email (the actual words themselves), we still aren’t given the full context required to understand all of what is being conveyed.
Have you ever received an email and thought the sender was completely irritated, only to find out that wasn’t the case? I know I have.
Second, the sheer volume of information received from intentional observation can make it difficult to separate the signal from the noise. Meaning, a quantity of information impacts our ability to decide what information is essential and actionable. Or, as Nate Silver has written, “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.”
But there are ways to overcome these obstacles. We can continually increase our mental databank of practical wisdom, the knowledge and insights we have gained over time and know is true. We can then allow this practical wisdom to help us make observational judgments and decisions.
Observation, SEO and Digital Marketing
“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.” James Webb Young
So how does this apply to SEO and digital marketing? Aside from the clear practical philosophical implications we can glean from the above – whether it be for SEO, digital marketing or our lives – here are three suggestions.
1. Absorb Everything
When starting a new project I always think of myself as a sponge, looking to grasp onto as much information as possible. Be it how a client contact interacts, or a detailed reading of the contract, or key questions asked of team members who have already worked with the client; I try to grab hold of as much as possible.
The key here is to hold off on your desire to speak and make quick decisions or judgments, and opt for an unbiased absorption of the things around you.
2. Spin a Web of Belief
Once we have taken the time to absorb information, we must then begin to synthesize information into an interconnected structure of belief – what philosopher W.V. Quine called a “web of belief.”
This still isn’t necessarily a place for making actionable decisions (we’re still at the O of OODA!), but it is a time to start looking through the absorbed collection of information, and start grabbing on to things of importance.
For example, during an early discovery call with a client, their stated goals for the project were to raise brand awareness and generate revenue – explicitly stated in that order. I absorbed this, and started to form a web of belief about the project that highly focused on brand awareness rather than revenue. This would help our team know the difference between what types of social channel advertising options we might pursue.
Simply put, absorbed information should slowly inform a web of belief about the project, the client, the initiative, and even the social channel (Ello anyone?).
3. Remember History
Finally, absorbed information resulting in a web of belief must be measured against history.
It is always valuable to remember history, as doing so puts you in a much better position than blindly making predictions. In fact, I would advocate for not making predictions. Instead, the realities of history should guide you to making current decisions.
There is no statement I ignore most at the beginning of a project than, “This is going to be a great project.” Everyone believes that, and while I agree with the accompanying sentiment and goodwill that innocently underlies the statement, it is mostly unhelpful.
Whereas “This is going to be a good project” covers initial fears, hesitations, and uncertainty, with all projects your initial step should be observation.
Absorb everything. Begin forming a web of belief about the project. Remember history.
This should leave you feeling as if some ground has been covered, but not all. That is just fine. Next week we’ll turn our attention to the second “O” in the OODA Loop: Orientation. A place where, as Alan Dundes once said, the “future orientation is combined with a notion and expectation of progress and nothing is impossible.”