The Observer Effect Works But Not for Long

stareHave you ever heard of the observer effect? It’s the scientific principle asserting that observing a process or action has an effect on the outcome. For example, I’m sure you’ve felt the pressure of having someone stare at you while you’re trying to do something. If you let it get to you, it effects your behavior — that’s one aspect of the observer effect.

The observer effect is a principle that comes into play in many business situations too. In fact, plenty of managers leverage it regularly.

Here’s a typical example that every manager faces from time to time. A project gets into trouble — it’s behind schedule and flailing badly. The manager in charge may invoke the observer principle. She watches the project closely putting the project manager and everyone on the team under a microscope.

She will likely set short-term deadlines and hand out a few new assignments but mostly, she lays out expectations and observes. Believe or not, many projects actually improve using this simple observer principle. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Management by Observation

Of course, the effect never lasts long. The project team quickly tires of being watched. Team members will often find ways of hiding some of their activities from view or offering visibility into activities that don’t matter but appear interesting to management.

You’ve likely determined by now that metrics are influenced by the observer effect. The team will make sure that management sees what they want to see — even if the product suffers.

Don’t ever be just an observer. Contribute. Do something. Be part of the team. If you can’t add any value, walk away.

photo credit: Tomi Tapio via photopin cc

Updated: August 27, 2013 — 9:35 pm