This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Insight - Seeing What Others Don't

Gary Klein’s 2013 book Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights is a good read, as I’ve found with his his other books. He likes to explore a topic from stories and search for corroborating links to draw together new conclusions. And as this book is about insight, the overall story of this book describes his journey of discovery as he delved into the topic. I particularly liked his discussion of the challenges that organizations face in gaining and using insights.

Klein split the book into three parts, but it was really two for me. What are insights. And what can we do to improve our ability to gain insight (and what blocks them).

Why are insights interesting in the first place? Klein presents a framework he uses around performance improvement. In order to improve we have two needs: reduce errors and increase insights. They must both exist to get the most out of performance improvement. And this is one of the big elements of the book for me: organizations (and many individuals) don’t know how to reliably create “insight” so they tend to focus on “reduce errors”. And that focus tends to cause us to push out the ability to have insights. In my view one could just as easily replace “insight” with “discovery” or “innovation” or similar concepts - but in order to improve performance there are these two elements: get better at what you do AND find new/better ways to do it.

Insight: An unexpected shift to a better story
— Gary Klein

So what are insights? The short form is that they are some kind of discovery or realization that is often unexpected. But when it happens, you can’t go back to seeing the world the old way. The additional nuance with insight is that you also see the implications on how it applies. As Klein says early in the book, “Intuition is the use of patterns [people have] already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns.” An insight might be a small thing, like finding a better way to coordinate schedules; or it might be something big like the Theory of Relativity. And, like Relativity, insights aren’t necessarily arrived at in a “Eureka” moment - “eureka” might be the spark, but it can take investigation to develop the insight into something clearer. Klein spends half the book delving into the stories he has collected regarding insight to create his framework on how they develop.

Starting from the popular belief that a prepared mind leads to insights, Klein found many examples where that wasn’t necessarily the case, but that the results certainly looked like insight. Klein’s framework evolved to five distinct triggers that lead to insights:

  • Connections: connecting the dots between seemingly disparate ideas or concepts. This seems like the classic “Eureka” moment of discovery that I’ve heard over the years.

  • Coincidences: seeing a surprising pattern and realizing that it means something.

  • Curiosities: seeing or experiencing an oddity or surprise - just one - that creates a strong reaction to investigate or explore further that develops into an insight.

  • Contradictions: spotting an anomaly that makes you think “that’s strange” or “that can’t be right”, and finding a new story within the anomaly.

  • Creative desperation: feeling trapped or stuck and finding an unexpected way out of the jam.

With these triggers, clearly people do different things - they follow different paths to make it to the insight. I like how he differentiates these triggers from what we do with them. With the connect-the-dots kind of triggers (connections, coincidences, curiosities), we tend to create new anchor points in the story we tell. These kinds of triggers are a form of discovery of new ways of thinking. On the other hand, contradictions lead us to taking existing anchors / assumptions and building upon them - making them stronger than they once were. And the creative desperation trigger leads us to discarding anchors / assumptions that we previously held as fixed.

The outcome of all of this is the insight - that change in the story that changes how we understand the world. And changes how we operate as a result.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
— Mark Twain

Of course, we don’t all have insights every day. And we can’t simply encourage people to experience more of the triggers. What is it that blocks insight? As human beings, we are always spotting connections and oddities. But are we always coming up with insights as a result? Klein again categorizes the ways that we can block ourselves from delving further: blocked by flawed beliefs (the belief/assumption is stronger than the trigger); lack of experience (we don’t have the experience/knowledge to check further); passive stance (we aren’t interested in looking for change); and concrete reasoning (a tolerance to ambiguity). I also appreciate that Klein admits these are general trends rather than fixed causes. When we tend to lean on these modes of operation, we tend to get fewer insights. Doing the opposite doesn’t guarantee insight either.

Following this, Klein presents some ideas for helping ourselves, others and organizations get better at gaining worthwhile insights - not just blowing our minds with new ideas, but helping ourselves and each other make use of those ideas. There are ideas here around being teachable and being a good teacher that I have seen in other writing as well - giving people space to come up with their own connections, rather than force-feeding them the connection (that may be obvious to us). This can be a big struggle for anyone who already sees the new way of operating.

I was particularly interested in the elements Klein describes for organizations and insights. He references his performance improvement model: in order for an organization to improve their performance, they must improve what they currently do (decrease the amount/extent of errors) AND find new ways to do it (increase the insights developed). Said another way, organizations must be reliable/predictable AND they must grow. This is where the challenge lies for many organizations, there are many established approaches for improving reliability and predictability. On the side of improving insight, the approaches aren’t as strong. Even understanding Klein’s model here - or any of the fascinating thinking on innovation and learning organizations - insights by their very nature are difficult to harness into a process. Of course, “process thinking” itself is a “reduce errors” mindset: define the process, operate that way, check for deviations from the process, refine the process. But it is pretty clear from the rest of the book that this is not the way to create an organization that encourages and embraces insight. The way we come to insights is messy by its very nature.

Many organizations have focused so heavily on the idea of being predictable that it has become the ONLY goal. Insights disrupt predictability. And when organizations are already in the midst of disruption and changes being imposed from the outside, it is very difficult to accept changes coming from the inside as well. It is much more likely that they will double down on predictability and reliability: more reports, more update meetings, more analysis. All of which allows very little time or room for insight into new ways of operating.

Klein presents a number of approaches that could work, but he also acknowledges that they are all attempts to compromise with the conflict that these needs place on them. None of the solutions break the conflict and truly allow organizations to both improve predictability AND improve insights. And so long as organizations work in a world where being unpredictable has a massive near-term impact, this will likely continue to be the case. Organizations will get their lunch handed to them by those who are able to find other ways to capitalize on their insights - who might not be as tied to the requirement to be predictable.

Seeing What Others Don’t is a great read from these two perspective. One on understanding what is insight and the varied paths by which people come to change their understanding of the world. And the other is on what tends to block individuals and organizations, and how to potentially overcome those barriers.

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