Eureka! Here’s a new way to look at insight: Cognitive scientist Gary Klein delves deeply into the phenomenon of that flash of inspiration or recognition and structures its attainment according to the “Triple Path” model he devised – in an insight of his own. Rather than following the prescribed path of conducting carefully controlled experiments, he developed his model by using the “naturalistic” method of collecting and analyzing 120 stories of human experiences that altered someone’s “core beliefs.” The stories bring his research to vivid life. His analysis of these tales persuaded him that “connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions and creative desperation” lead to insight. getAbstract recommends Klein’s method and smart exposition to anyone who wants to be more attuned to their intuitive processes, to make sounder decisions more quickly, and to inspire insights among their colleagues, employees, friends or family.
- The outdated “preparation, incubation, illumination and verification” model of how people achieve insight is still widely accepted.
- Insight inspires you to accept a “better story” or solution even if it alters a “core” belief.
- The “Triple Path” model says insights come from three factors that can drive change: “motivations, triggers or activities.”
- The five paths to insight are “connections, coincidences and curiosities,” which come as one segment of the Triple Path, plus “contradictions and creative desperation.”
- Connections happen when new information intersects with old data to form a discovery.
- Coincidences and seemingly chance incidents may signal a pattern.
- Contradiction breeds insight when new data don’t align with an existing belief.
- People experience breakthroughs when they take notice of “inconsistencies,” “anomalies” and “curiosities.”
- “Flawed beliefs, lack of experience, a passive stance or a concrete reasoning style” inhibit flashes of fresh inspiration or realization.
- Insights “transform how you understand, act, see and feel.”
A police officer observed the driver of a new BMW flick ashes from his cigarette onto the upholstery. He wondered who would be so uncaring as to do that in a brand-new car. The officer pulled the vehicle over and arrested a car thief – he’d caught the careless crook in the act. This story demonstrates the power of a flash of insight.
“No matter how much we unpack insights and demystify them, we shouldn’t discard the sense that something unusual has happened, something for which we can be thankful.”
Businesses rely on such insights to shape decisions and trigger innovation. Yet, to boost performance, managers work hard to reduce errors. In the process, they often neglect to facilitate useful insights. While many experts say that focusing on avoiding errors stifles innovation, they don’t know how to increase insight: What ignites that flash? What traits or events impede people and block their ability to seize an insight? And, how can you build your stream of insights?
Martin Chalfie, a professor of biology at Columbia University, won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. Chalfie was studying the nervous system of worms. He attended a lecture about a topic unrelated to his field. The speaker described the discovery of a protein in jellyfish that enables them to fluoresce underwater. Chalfie realized that if he inserted the jellyfish’s fluorescent protein into the cells of the translucent worms, he could observe their systems in action in live worms. He invented a “biological flashlight,” now a standard tool in molecular biology research and the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry.
“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights.”
In 1999, one of Harry Markopolos’s colleagues at a Boston investment company challenged him to match the success rate of Bernie Madoff’s investment firm. When Markopolos analyzed Madoff’s spectacular returns, he realized that Madoff had to be cheating. He alerted the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2000, but received the brush-off. Markopolos pursued his investigation into Madoff’s hedge fund for a decade, until officials arrested the swindler in 2008.
“We are built to notice associations and coincidences and we are also built to detect anomalies, inconsistencies, irregularities.”
Michael Gottlieb of Stanford University was studying the human immune system in 1981 when he saw a patient who had more suppressor cells in his blood than helper cells. The young man died of Pneumocystis pneumonia. Gottlieb saw several patients with the same symptoms and in June 1981, published a paper – the first to identify the bodily processes of AIDS. He gained his insight by observing a pattern that other medical professionals had failed to detect. Not every insight leads to detecting a crook or discovering a medical breakthrough. Ordinary people experience insights big and small in everyday situations. People spot inconsistencies or patterns, notice connections or anomalies, or simply figure out ways to improve things.
Graham Wallas’s insight model, published in 1926 in The Art of Thought, is still widely accepted. The model says that the development of insight follows a four-stage progression: “preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.” The stories show the flaws in this model. The cop didn’t prepare to spot a car thief, but he had a “generally prepared mind” based on experience. Gottlieb didn’t have a flash of insight; he gained insight slowly after noticing a pattern. Insights move people to accept a “better story” about a problem or event, irrevocably altering their previous “core” belief. Insights come from three factors that can drive change:
- “Motivations” – For instance, you could have a flash of insight as you look for solutions, such as a way to leave a “bad situation,” or as you seek a new construct for thinking about common beliefs or “conventional wisdom.”
- “Triggers” – Noticing something in a fresh way can spur an insight. You might recognize a “flawed assumption” or run into an “inconsistency” that spurs your thinking. You might replace “the flawed assumption or build on the weak assumption that leads to the inconsistency.”
- “Activities” – Doing new and different things can awaken innovative ideas.
“The fear of making errors of commission leads to an increase in errors of omission; they block disruptive insights about what is really happening in a situation.”
When an insight reveals itself, “everything that happens afterward is different,” one person explained. That is, once insights flash, they can transform you four ways:
- “They change how you understand” – Your eyes are opened to a new comprehension.
- “They change how you act” – Now that you know more, you behave differently.
- They “transform how you see and feel” – You may have a sense of “closure.”
- They “change your desires” – Wiser and more aware, you reach for new goals.
“Insights change our understanding by shifting the central beliefs – the anchors – in the story we use to make sense of events.”
Case studies about insight reveal that it emerges from five different sources: “connections, coincidences” and “curiosities” – three factors that combine as one leg of the Triple Path Model – plus the other two legs, “contradictions and creative desperation.”
Connections, Coincidences and Curiosities
Many case study subjects achieved insight by “connecting the dots.” Japanese Admiral Yamamoto studied the 1940 Battle of Taranto, in which the British navy destroyed half the Italian fleet docked in Taranto Bay. Before that battle experts had believed that torpedoes wouldn’t work in shallow water, but the British overcame that obstacle. Studying their success, Yamamoto had the insight that he could succeed in attacking the US fleet docked in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. US Admiral Harold Stark gained the same insight from the Battle of Taranto and warned the US secretary of the navy about Pearl Harbor. The American navy did nothing.
“Connecting the dots’ trivializes the business of making sense of events and arriving at insights.”
Insights that fall on deaf ears and don’t trigger a responding action seem futile. While connecting the dots may lead to a conclusion that appears obvious later, expecting everyone to see those connections the same way doesn’t account for ambiguous or unrelated data, the “non-dots.”
People gain insights by noticing coincidences, seemingly chance incidences that may signal a pattern. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was studying quasars when she noted a reoccurring signal of unaccounted energy. When she saw similar signals in different parts of the sky, her flash of insight led to the discovery of pulsars, “rapidly spinning neutron stars.” People also acquire insight by noting “curiosities,” such as when Alexander Fleming observed that an accidental contamination of mold destroyed the staphylococcus bacteria in a petri dish. Further research led to the discovery of penicillin.
Contradiction-spurred insights occur when information doesn’t align with an existing belief. In the face of new data, a person experiences a “Tilt!” – like an unbalanced pinball machine. Many of these insights emerge from a “suspicious” mind, rather than an “open” one. For example, several people felt the “Tilt!” reaction when they studied the US housing bubble from 2003 to 2007. John Paulson and his partner Paolo Pellegrini made more than $15 billion by observing trends in the housing and subprime markets and accurately predicting the markets’ collapse.
This term originates from cognitive strategies initially devised by chess players trapped in seemingly inescapable situations on the chessboard. Such insight results from weighing your current assumptions to find a weak point and unearth a new solution. Smoke jumper Wagner Dodge used this technique to survive a fire that killed 12 of his teammates on Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. As a wall of flame roared up the mountain, outpacing the men’s ability to outrun it, Wagner had a flash of inspiration. He lit a backfire to deprive the oncoming flame of fuel. He survived.
To gain more insights and to steer others toward their own flashes of comprehension, consider the thought patterns spurred by contradiction, connection and creative desperation:
- The contradiction path helps you detect, find and use “inconsistencies and anomalies.”
- The connection path exposes you to novel notions and concepts.
- Critical thinking helps you pinpoint “and correct flawed assumptions and beliefs.”
People fail to gain insights for four major reasons: “flawed beliefs, lack of experience, a passive stance or a concrete reasoning style.” Major General Eli Zeira, Israel’s chief of intelligence, clung to a flawed belief in October 1973. He thought the Egyptians wouldn’t attack until they held air superiority over Israel, so he ignored continually mounting evidence to the contrary. He maintained that belief until just before Egypt attacked.
“Organizations inadvertently suppress the insights of their workers and they do so in ways that are ingrained and invisible.”
Sometimes, people don’t have enough experience to decipher the signs that could spark an insight. Passive people may notice anomalies or opportunities but fail to act. Paulson and Pellegrini observed weakness in the housing market and exploited it. A concrete, fact-based reasoning style that abhors speculation works against insights. Curiosity promotes insight because it depends on imagining “what if?” and entertaining unexpected theories.
Institutions, the Anti-Insight
By their nature, insights disorganize the orderly status quo. They work against change-averse hierarchical structures, which tend to favor predictability. Managers tend to disregard the unknown and unexpected; they aim for perfection and try to avoid mistakes. Insights disrupt; they cause people to realign and revise their goals, take on risk, shred timelines and create additional work. Thus, managers often think they have reasons to ignore breakthroughs and even improvements.
“Just because we have a good insight doesn’t mean we’ll behave with more maturity or make wiser choices.”
The very processes that organizations use to reduce errors and promote consistency often inhibit innovation. These include “imposing tighter standards, increasing controls, identifying assumptions, increasing the number of reviews and adhering to schedules.” Great ideas that make it to the top of this ladder of obstructions are, unfortunately, the exception, not the rule.
“I don’t have the ambition to be a researcher of stupidity. It is bad enough to be a practitioner.”
Helping other people arrive at an insight means discerning where their thinking has hit a snag and how you can unhook it and help them move along, perhaps by discerning an underlying flawed belief. Take Doug Harrington, an experienced, accomplished pilot seeking additional certification but having difficulty passing his landing test in an A-6 plane. He kept coming in off-center and he couldn’t figure out why. He discussed the problem with his senior instructor, who realized that Harrington was using the same landing technique he applied when landing F-4s, and that was causing him to miss the centerline. The instructor gave Harrington a training exercise to correct the flaw. The next day, Harrington passed his tests.
The Up Arrow
Increasing people’s ability to have new insights within organizations is challenging. Companies emphasize improving performance by “reducing errors” – which in diagram form is a down arrow – and by boosting insights – which appears in diagrams as an up arrow. Unfortunately, most companies put more energy and belief into the down arrow. In the mid-1990s, many large companies adopted Six Sigma, a down-arrow program focusing on improving quality by reducing detailed errors. By 2006, some zeal for Six Sigma waned as reports emerged showing that it could inhibit innovation. One solution is to loosen those managerial controls that strangle creativity.
“Having an insight is an act of creation.”
Another response is to “strengthen the up arrow,” by encouraging discoveries and sharing them via stories throughout the organization. In many companies, this responsibility falls to a “chief innovation officer.” For example, once in a leadership workshop, an employee complimented her manager by saying that whenever she asked to speak with him, he turned away from his computer and gave her his undivided attention. She noted that she rarely received this treatment from other managers. The story circulated throughout the company, and managers gave their employees more attention. The workshop leaders believe this simple story provoked a strong response because people figured out its meaning. The story provided directions about how to act, causing everyone to agree that the story mattered, created emotional impact and sparked insight.
About the Author
Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition LLC, also wrote Sources of Power, The Power of Intuition and A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis.