Seeing what others don’t- the remarkable ways we gain insights

A bond of mutual appreciation links Gary Klein, the experimental psychologist, and Malcolm Gladwell, the writer. Gladwell is a fan of Klein’s research, while Klein, in his new book on insights, has adopted Gladwell’s style, combining compelling storytelling with arresting counterintuitive bombshells.

In this very engaging book, he deconstructs the nature of insights and their effects, whether trivial or game-changing. He suggests two ways they might be encouraged, given how crucial they are for innovation and adaptation.

For Klein, they provide an unexpected shift in our understanding in the story we tell ourselves about how the world works, and how to make it work better.

His “naturalistic” research approach analyses and codes 120 real life events, drawing lessons in understanding how insights are reached. He uncovers three different pathways for gaining insights: making connections (and seeing coincidences); spotting contradictions; and “creative desperation”, where we break free from our flawed assumptions and mindsets. Each works in different ways and relies on its own set of techniques.

For business, insights are important. The secret to success and improved performance is, in part, to improve predictability and reduce errors. But improved performance requires insights, too, as they catalyse creativity, adaptability and innovation. The challenge for leaders is to get the right balance between these elements.

Insights range from the mundane: two police officers notice a driver of a smart car tipping ash on to the dashboard (aha! its probably stolen, which it was) to the Japanese Admiral Yamomoto’s insight that the successful British aerial torpedo attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto Bay, in 1940, exposed the extreme vulnerability of America’s Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor. (Ironically a US admiral had the same insight but it wasn’t acted on.)

One of Klein’s most compelling points is a paradox: evidence and data can impede progress. Insights often require people to abandon some strongly held beliefs, either because of contradictory evidence or because they were trapped by flawed beliefs that prevented them from solving problems. Our natural tendency, when encountering evidence that doesn’t match our view of how things work, is to discount the evidence.

Klein claims that flawed data can appear to disprove an accurate insight. And the way data is analysed and coded reflects the current beliefs and assumptions of the researchers. Without the intelligence to notice the importance of anomalies, databases and coding, methods cannot evolve to capture deep insights. Indeed, data analyses are usually designed to increase speed and power, not to uncover deep insights.

So, in schools, how can you help others to gain an insight? You could help them to become aware of inconsistencies in their thinking and to dump cherished beliefs that are simply wrong. A flying instructor helps a pilot struggling to land on an aircraft carrier by devising a simple exercise to help him to achieve his own insight. It involved no more than simply closing one eye and using his thumb (representing the aircraft’s nose) to align with a straight line in the room, then moving his head 18in to the side and lining up the thumb again. He then realised that he was getting his alignment wrong because of where he was seated in an unfamiliar aircraft. An “aha” moment follows, with an adjustment, and then six safe landings.

Organisations could try employing “insight advocates” to incentivise more insights or “insight oversight” groups to allow employees and managers to break away from procedures and processes that too often obstruct insights. But this is where Klein candidly acknowledges that many leaders are unlikely to take the necessary steps needed to encourage insights in their organisations, as they worry about the disruptive forces that they unleash.

There aren’t here any universal strategies for making discoveries. There are different paths, with blends and overlaps.

Klein gifts us some marvellous aphorisms, and advances our understanding of insights – and, indeed, how our minds work. But he still leaves us with a big question. How do we more effectively harness insights to make the world work better for all of us.