By Anja Neubauer, Kepner-Tregoe

Kepner-Tregoe thinking processes are irreversibly connected to the successful return of Apollo 13— credited by mission control for identifying the actions needed to bring the spacecraft home. Today, the scientific interest in space missions has shifted and the first “space vacations” have been sold. But let’s take it a step back: What does space actually mean?

Space can be defined as the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The word has had a long journey through meanings, tracing back to the ancient Greeks and later to Arab scientists’ "geometrical conception of place." Isaac Newton´s view on space was that it is absolute—in the sense that it existed permanently and independently of whether there was any matter in the space. Natural philosophers discussed the term (Leibnitz, Kant) and of course Einstein’s general theory of relativity and deviation from Euclidean space should be mentioned.

This summary shows how versatile the concept of space is. We travel through space on a daily basis and we all have to deal with space somehow. And communication about space can touch on many, different things.

When I lead Kepner-Tregoe Problem Solving & Decision Making workshops, I often begin by asking participants to consider the space they are in and write down three things they observe. I phrase this request carefully – this is all about observations using the senses, to observe what they hear, smell, see, taste or touch. Besides these traditional senses, we could also consider thermoception, balance and acceleration, proprioception (knowing where your body parts are) and pain (nocioception), also regarded as senses, although “non-traditional” ones.

Next we audit the observations. Which ones are based on the senses and which add interpretations or judgements? Participants are astonished by how quickly they (and we all) start interpreting and judging. For example, some things people have observed include: an aggressive green wall and a too large table. In many corporate meeting rooms where we meet, I also can expect observations like boring or sterile. Observations or interpretations? Where is the line between them?  In one classroom, we had a garland of the type that is usually made out of paper. But could the participants be sure that this was indeed a paper garland? Only by looking at it very closely or by touching it.

Another outcome of this exercise in observing space is that it leads to some discussion of the value of using more than one of the senses. Most people use the sense of sight in their observations. Yet during meetings, why do we use so few visuals (sight) relative to talking (hearing) to exchange information? Observations using other senses could enrich the information.

This exercise in space also emphasizes how different observations can be within the same space. What are the most extreme answers? And why are they so different? Observations may be linked to knowledge and experience. At one workshop, someone uniquely observed a plant growing into the building. She did so because coincidentally at her own office she had a view of a plant growing into the building. Our knowledge, experience and even our position in space can have an influence on what we observe and communicate.

So let’s go back to the Greeks one more time; Democritus said it well:

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

Democritus (460 BC - 370 BC)

After this exercise, having reflected on our observations in our space, we consider the question that the Kepner-Tregoe method asks to find the deviation: what can we see, feel, hear, taste, smell that tells us that there is a deviation? Now we are ready to begin problem solving.

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