What is remarkable about insights?
In the first chapter of Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein references a slide that he had often used to argue for the importance of insights and their relative neglect in business. The slide showed visually that Performance improvements = reducing errors + increasing insights. As he points out, businesses too often focus on the first at the expense of the second. They spend a lot of energy trying to eliminate errors rather than opening themselves up to potential (and often more impactful) insights that can create value.
The book is a great read for anyone in the insights industry (and anyone in business) and is based on an analysis of more than 200 cases of insight discovery or “aha” moments, as well as several matched cases where insights did not materialise although people had the same information and tools. Gary Klein sees insights as transformational moments, when (as he quotes from Wolf Hall), “Insights cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before”.
Initially, Gary Klein categorises insights into five themes (none mutually exclusive): connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions and creative desperation.
Connections, Contradictions and Creative desperation
Connections is the most common theme in much of the writing about insights and Gary Klein agrees that it’s an important part of developing insights, but not the only part. One of the examples he uses of the us of connections is Charles Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution driven by natural selection. The theory came to Darwin in stages and by putting together different pieces of the puzzle, most especially his observations while on the voyage of the HMS Beagle of the interplay between different species and the geography and environment in which they lived, even across a small area of multiple islands like the Galapagos.
Coincidences are those events that seem to be somehow related but without an obvious causal connection, as in the initial discovery of the AIDS virus, or the seemingly random squiggles on paper from looking for quasars that eventually led Jocelyn Bell Burnell to discover pulsars.
Curiosities are events that spark a “What’s going on here?” question from a single unexpected observation, as in Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin from the discovery of mould in one of his petri dishes.
Contradictions are of course fundamental to the most interesting stories and a key source of insights. Gary Klein uses the example of the early predictions, some as early as 2003, by some of the housing bubble and impending economic implosion. The predictions were based on the glaring contradictions they saw in the data on housing and the economy. Another example is John Snow’s discovery of cholera in the mid 1800s, all because of a contradiction between the prevailing ‘theory’ of how cholera spread and the reality of the observations he made of cholera deaths in London. This led to the realisation that cholera was not spread by something “in the air” but by something people ate or drank.
Creative desperation is the discovery of insights by accident or by being in the right place at the right time. Such insights often come when you are most under pressure to come up with something. For example, chess players often come up with their most surprising and brilliant strategies when the clock is running down and they have to do “something” to break through.
Gary Klein then looks further at the cases of contradictions and creative desperation arguing that both are based on embracing “outliers” and on challenging a flawed assumption or finding an inconsistency. However, both are similar in that they are disruptive to our thinking, forcing us to abandon existing beliefs. This makes them unlike the connections, curiosities and coincidences paths to insight which by and large build on our existing knowledge and beliefs. Therefore, Gary Klein eventually argues for a model based on three paths to insight:
- Contradiction (find an inconsistency and rethink an existing idea)
- Connection (use a connection, curiosity or coincidence to build a new idea)
- Creative desperation (discard an existing idea)
Getting to more insights
In the later chapters of the book, Gary Klein offers advice on how to make use of these strategies and discusses how many companies obstruct the finding of insights through an over-emphasis on predictability or perfection (back to focusing too much on eliminating errors). There is always a tension between reducing errors and gaining insights, and he argues that the very focus on error reduction makes it even less likely that you can make insightful discoveries. The predictability and perfection paths lead to a whole shopping list of behaviours including increasing controls, relying on procedures and checklists focusing on precision, etc. All of these behaviours work against insights because they tend to close the mind rather than open it up to new ideas, especially those that need us to question out existing assumptions.
Seeing What Others Don’t is highly recommended and, to finish, here are five pieces of insightful advice from the book:
- Always be curious
- Let your mind wander
- Pay attention to coincidences
- Look closely at contradictions
- Act quickly on your insights
Seeing What Others Don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights by Gary Klein