The Mattus Test

"To acquire knowledge one must study, but to acquire wisdom one must observe.” Marilyn vos Savant

“Hello, Mr. Mattus! How are you?” I said brightly, as Illimar Mattus, Tickmill’s Executive Director, entered the conference room.

He looked at me, half-smiled and, without uttering a single word, handed me his business card.

I glanced at the card and less than a second later I focused on it for a second time and then a third. Something was very wrong.

The card read “Dr. Savvas G. S. (Paediatrician)”! I looked back at him with an obvious expression of bewilderment on my face and said, “But aren’t you Mr. Illimar Mattus? You look just like the man in the photo on your company’s website!”

His reply remains one of my all-time favourite business and life lessons. As a consultant, who seeks to bring positive change within organisations, I would have paid top money to learn it years before.

“I just wanted to see how observant you really are!” he said, and went on to add that, “way too many of the people we call in for meetings and interviews just go through the motions. They take a business card and don’t even bother looking at it.”

My dear readers, this was a test! Not a litmus test but what I now call the Mattus Test in his honour. You don’t need to do any revising for it in order to pass it. You just have to be aware and pay attention to your surroundings.

Your potential clients may not try the Mattus Test on you - even though they might - but I can guarantee that they will expect you to have strong observational skills. They, too, will be observing your mannerisms and your knowledge of the topic at hand.

Every company, every manager and every team is different and, to spot the difference, you need to be observant. Finding out precisely how they are different must become your mission and, as a change agent, you have an obligation to notice the clues. This will make you better able to serve your clients and help you gain their loyalty.

Several of my own recent experiences have underlined the importance of observation. Here is three of them.

Observation makes us learn

After two and a half days of class at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, the instructor asked us to stand up and observe something in the room that we had failed to notice before. It didn't matter what it was.

Maybe the air conditioning unit: What noises did it make? How frequently did it cycle on and off? What temperature did it maintain? Did it appear to keep most people comfortable? Or the walls: Were they plain? Colourful? Textured? Were they bare or did they have pictures on them?

The point of this simple exercise was not to solve the world’s great problems (though this is a part of SU’s stated mission) by noticing the A/C or the walls, but rather to show that observation makes us learn. And it is a skill we can practice.

Observation is better than guesswork

IDEO’s “Insights for Innovation” course made the practice of observation more explicit. One of the first exercises involved going to a supermarket and observing how different people buy groceries. How does a chef navigate the store and select items? Or a homemaker? What about a child?

You might be able to guess some of the differences in how these three types of person shop but unless you actually observe them in the grocery section of a supermarket, you will be lacking essential factual data and insights that could help you solve any problems they might present and develop innovations to serve them better.

Unless you observe the users of your software, how do you know where they struggle and what causes them to eventually give up? Unless you observe how an audience responds to your presentation, how do you know if you have hit the mark and whether your listeners will take the action you have proposed? Unless you observe the purchasers of your kitchen gadget, how can you know if they’ve found a new use for it? One that might open up a whole new market?

Don’t just guess. Observe the real world.

Observation leads to insight

Last year I spent a week working in a large New York firm to assess a group of 21 “high potentials”, including an hour-long one-on-one session with each. At the end of the week, I gave the Board of Directors my observations. After telling me that I was spot-on for 20 of the 21, they asked how I had succeeded in being so accurate after spending only an hour with each one.

I explained that I hadn’t just had an hour with each person; I had been observing them throughout the entire week. When we went for dinner, I noticed who they talked to, who they didn’t talk to, what their body language said. I listened to the words they used and the tone of their voice. I watched how management reacted to them  ̶  which ones were ignored and which ones they engaged with.

I looked for patterns and those patterns gave me insights into each individual’s personality, skills and motivation. Those insights would then enable me to offer guidance on how best to develop each employee into a full-fledged leader.

Just as important as the pattern is its opposite: the anomaly. If you read financial statements with any regularity, you already know this. You look for consistent, predictable growth in revenue with a corresponding trend in expenses (though preferably with a more gradual slope). When expenses spike or revenue drops, the red flags appear: What is going on?  

Anomalies, whether positive or negative, are triggers to make you ask questions. In their change-management book Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about looking for what they call “bright spots” ̶  the places outside the prevalent pattern of expected positive results. When trying to create change, observing anomalies provides insights into what is alreadyworking.

What’s it’s really all about...

You’ve doubtless heard the old cliché: God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. In my coaching and consulting work, I try to listen more than I speak, to observe more than expound.

The ability to make accurate observations can help you stand out in a crowded field of competitors. More importantly, observation enables you to do deeper work and to serve your clients to the best of your ability. For now, just make a point of carefully scrutinizing every business card you are handed. Someone else may be about to put you through the Mattus Test!