Optics is an interesting subject to me – before management consulting, I knew optics as more of a perception that other people would have based on your actions and without knowing your intent but I’m glad that there is an actual term for it. Before I define what I think optics mean, let’s look at a few situations where optics is important based on my experience in management consulting.

  • Senior Manager and myself are in a meeting with the client. The Partner who is also invited is late so we start the meeting without him. About 15 minutes into the meeting, the Partner walks in, apologies for his tardiness and then says that he was late because of the huge amount of traffic from the other meeting he was getting out of. In his hand, he holds a coffee from Starbucks. Later, we remark on this fact without the client around and the Partner says that the coffee was actually an old coffee / cold. What is the optics of the situation? The client sees the Partner walking in late. The Partner says that he was stuck in traffic but is holding a coffee in his hand. The client might think that the Partner was actually late because he went to grab a coffee in between meetings.
  • Team is reviewing a deliverable with a client. There are three people – myself and two other senior people. One person is presenting the deliverable while I am taking notes. As my coworker is talking, my other coworker chimes in to tell them that they are wrong and that the direction should be different. Although I did not recognize it at the time, I am later told by the first coworker that optics-wise, it was not the best idea for the other coworker to come into the conversation to say that they were wrong in front of the client. From the client’s perspective, this can seem like the team is disjointed, not communicating with each other or just unprofessional.
  • This is a second hand story that I heard – the Partner and their team are working on a massive business case – these are usually 100+ page documents full of analysis including financial sensitivities, jurisdictional scans, risk assessments, implementation plans, the whole deal. The team has worked evenings and weekends to get this across the finish line. Finally, they have everything finalized, reviewed by the Partner and submitted to the client. When the Partner sees the client the next time to discuss the deliverable, the first question that comes out of the client’s mouth was: “how much time did you spend on the deliverable?” Sensing the tone of the client and the boldness of the question, the Partner confessed and said that they had run out of time to complete the deliverable. The client was satisfied with the answer because it turned out that they had a significant amount of feedback on the deliverable (and although I was not there, it may have been a drastic difference in expectations). Yes, the team had worked hard to get the deliverable completed but this is not always communicated to the client.

Now that you have heard three situations where optics is important – here is what I think optics is:

Optics is a way of practicing second order thinking – that is, not just looking at the direct causes and effects of specific actions, but looking at what the reactions to those initial actions can be and what the reactions to those reactions can be. When I first learned about the concept and as I watched consultants become aware of the concept in interactions or situations that I myself was not aware of, I thought that this was a skill that was really quite invaluable.

How do you become more aware of the ‘optics’ of a situation?

Like with all things – you need practice. Better yet, learn from others who have been there and can show you the way. One of the best ways that I know to practice being more aware of the ‘optics’ of a situation is to prepare ahead of time. If you are meeting a customer or a friend of a friend, get to know them. What do they like? What do they dislike? How can you create a situation where you do not stick your foot in your mouth? For example, one of the things that I like to do is to use self-deprecating humour where I do not know the other person very well – this helps ease the environment, does not put the other person on edge, hopefully does not offend that person and helps make me seem like I’m an easy going person that is not afraid of making fun of himself.

Another thing that you can do is reflect (which is a great reason to keep a journal) back on a situation any time you recognize that there was a different outcome than you thought or an underlying perspective that you may not have noticed when you were in the situation. I think about the situations that I have been in and while some of them I have recognized how to interact in such a way to achieve good ‘optics’, there are others where I was totally oblivious until someone else pointed it out to me.

How do you recognize that an ‘optics’ situation exists?

I am of the mindset that optics exist in almost every single situation there is when you are with someone else. It could be with your girlfriend or boyfriend (though you would hope that they are close and open enough to tell you about it). It could be with your boss or co-worker. It could be with friends that you regularly hang out with. Communication will help you out a great deal but you may not always be there to provide commentary on a situation.

What are your thoughts on this? Where have you recognized the ‘optics’ of a situation? What have you done about it? How can you be more aware of it?