A cognitive psychologist’s approach to fostering insights
Over the course of my career as a cognitive psychologist, I have always been interested in examining the “light bulb” moment, or the moment an insight occurs. In my book, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, I analyzed 120 incidents in which insights occurred in an attempt to learn more about how insights arise, and to develop new strategies for people and organizations to boost their insights. Recently I formulated a strategy to help people gain more insights. But before I explain how that works, let’s see how insights arise.
My informal study led me to develop the Insight Stance (In/Stance for short), a mental stance we can adopt for encountering new ideas and events. This active mindset requires that we take a more curious approach, preparing ourselves to be delighted by discoveries. But before I explain the In/Stance in more depth, let’s talk about insights.
Why are insights important?
Every organization strives to stay on the cutting edge, whether by developing the newest technologies, creating the most innovative strategies, or solving long-standing problems. This requires generating and cultivating new ideas, both at the leadership and the worker level.
While most organizations sincerely want to boost their insights, organizational culture and common practices often counteract insightful behavior. Most organizations value predictability and strive toward perfection by reducing the number of errors they make. Project managers like to map out steps, allocate resources, and create timelines in order to meet deadlines. When their plan gets disturbed, they are quick to revise the plan and reallocate resources to make sure their progress isn’t slowed– in other words, they define success as making as few errors as possible.
In their zeal for predictability and error reduction, organizations can inadvertently stifle insights. Insights are unpredictable, disruptive, and dis-organizing. They counteract our natural tendency to want to accurately predict progress and manage risk. However, in order to improve performance, it is important to strike a balance between managing uncertainty and increasing our insights.
I developed the graphic above to illustrate this balance. Organizations often fall into the trap of fixating on the down arrow – attempting to decrease errors and uncertainty. Why? Because mistakes are visible, costly, and embarrassing. It’s easy for managers to spot mistakes and throw resources at trying to prevent them. However, too much emphasis on the down arrow stifles the production of insights, or the up arrow.
How can we do better?
Of course, no one can argue with the importance of cutting down on mistakes. However, fixating on the down arrow naturally reduces the production of insights by emphasizing rules and procedures. Focusing on the down arrow is a defensive strategy, or playing not to lose. The up arrow is geared more towards offense. It’s all about making new connections, having breakthroughs, and solving previously unsolvable problems. Focusing on the up arrow is playing to win.
So how can we balance both arrows? Our goal should be to reach a happy medium between reducing errors and encouraging our employees to develop and come forward with new ideas.
The core of a strategy to improve insights should be to keep our minds curious, sometimes skeptical, delighting in speculation. We want to make sure that we are actively noticing and investigating discrepancies when they appear, even though we can’t spend all of our time investigating every detail.
The solution: an Insight Stance (In/Stance)
So we know that being curious, inquisitive, and speculative can lead to more insights. But how can we retain our employees’ productivity while still encouraging them to keep an eye out for insights? My solution: adopt an Insight Stance, or In/Stance for short. This is a mindset we can use while going about our daily work, and it will increase our chances of making innovative discoveries.
I developed the idea for In/Stance by analyzing 30 incidents in which there were “twins” – one person who had an insight, and another person who had all of the same information but didn’t have the insight. Analyzing the differences in the way that the twins thought about the same situation, I noticed several mistakes that the “failure twin” made. First, he or she got too caught up in his or her flawed beliefs. The failure twin was not inquisitive or skeptical enough to question oddities or inconsistencies. Instead, they took all information at face value. And often, the failure twin didn’t have an active mindset. That is, they approached the situation in a passive manner, without giving it much thought. They weren’t mentally checked-in enough to notice small anomalies or inconsistent details. Or if they did, they explained them away as being a fluke or coincidence.
One might ask, when should we use the In/Stance? The In/Stance should mainly be active when we encounter new ideas and events. We need to take a curious stance, one that will welcome discoveries and exploration. This is the opposite of our knee-jerk reaction, which is to be skeptical of new ideas.
Now that we’ve talked about what In/Stance is, here are some specific things we can do to adopt this mindset:
- Wonder about inconsistencies and anomalies instead of dismissing or explaining them away.
- Wonder about coincidences that seem promising.
- Give freer rein to curiosity, spending more time speculating about implications of events or ideas that aren’t on the main path we are pursuing.
- Be alert to unexpected connections between ideas.
- Notice leverage points that might help when we get stuck – alternative ways to move forward when our usual problem-solving methods aren’t working.
- Instead of simply making sure projects are progressing at a satisfactory pace, supervisors can ask employees more in-depth questions: How has your understanding of the project changed? What has surprised you? Are you tempted to change the project goals? If the employee responds that nothing has to be rethought, this may indicate that the person isn’t adopting the In/Stance.
- Confusions and conflicts may offer opportunities for gaining insights. Employees may have misconceptions of different ideas about how things work– Investigate these inconsistencies, as they may lead to insights.
Of course, the In/Stance isn’t a permanent shift in mindset – it could get overwhelming to explore every little anomaly, and we could lose sight of our day-to-day work. We can, however, learn to enter into this mindset more often and for longer periods than we normally would. We can and should devote more mental energy to noticing insights that could set our organizations apart from the competition.
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Gary Klein, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at MacroCognition LLC. His most recent book is Seeing What Others Don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights. He also writes for Psychology Today.