Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights

Book Review-Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights

It was October of 2011 when I reviewed Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power. Since I read and reviewed it, I’ve referred to it repeatedly. While preparing to see if Gary would respond to a question about knowledge management, I realized that last year he published another book – Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights – and I knew I had to read it. In fact it usurped the normal backlog of reading and got placed directly at the top. That’s what happens for me when you have an author you respect on a topic that’s intriguing.

I’ve been writing and working in the space of innovations lately. (See Diffusion of Innovations, Unleashing Innovation, Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results, and Creative Confidence) I’ve been separating ideas from innovation – because innovation is about the execution of an idea. However, what sorts a great idea from a good one? How do you know which ideas to push through execution for? Well, that takes insight. That takes the ability to see the entire environment and know which things are important and which are not. This is exactly the kind of thing that Klein spoke about in Sources of Power – he spoke of recognition primed decisions.

Blurry Vision

As it turns out there has been a reasonable amount of interest and study about insights all the way back to Graham Wallas who wrote The Art of Thought in 1926. Wallas described a four-stage model of insight:

  • Preparation
  • Incubation
  • Illumination
  • Verification

The model, according to Klein, is still them most common model for describing insight. That makes sense if it’s the model that has been around the longest. Through the course of the book Klein looks at ways that the model is useful and how there are problems with the model. He looks at examples where incubation didn’t have time to happen and examples where there wasn’t any specific preparation – only a generally prepared mind.

In the end, Klein believes in a different model that flows from three points rather than a single linear model.

Discover the Truth

Triple Path

Klein believes that insights are developed through three different paths: Contradiction, Connection, and Creative Desperation. Let’s take a look at these three paths and how they create insights.

Contradiction

Sources of Power talked about the mental models that the fire commanders build. They would simulate how the fire would behave and develop expectancies. They’d monitor the fire and the situation for anything they didn’t expect and that all of the things that they expected were true. These were guide posts that helped the fire commanders know when something was wrong. (You’ll also find discussions of mental models in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Compelled to Control, Dialogue Mapping, and The Fifth Discipline.)

Contradictions are at their heart this mental model engine hitting Tilt! It’s when A+B cannot equal C. It’s like someone saying they built a submarine-airplane. Airplanes are necessarily light and submarines are necessarily designed to withstand immense external pressure. Those design goals are mutually exclusive. By modeling how planes must be built and how submarines must be built it’s possible to see that it’s not possible to build a single vehicle that does both.

Mental models are built on anchors. They’re built on what we believe to be true. However, sometimes these anchors aren’t true. The anchor could be something we read, something we intuitively know, or something that someone else has told us. Contradictions form insights by removing these poor anchors and replacing them with new anchors that more accurately represent reality.

Connection

Years ago I was working with a school system and we needed a way to handle non-repudiation. That is that we wanted to ensure that teacher evaluations weren’t tampered with after their signature. Historically this is handled by having each party initial every single page of a contract. At the time I was doing some security work with hashes. A hash is a mathematical reduction of source information into a non-predictable output. A small change in the source data produces a very large change in the output of the hash. This prevents tampering of a message in transit.

However, the connection for me came that we could print the hash of the evaluation on a signature page. The signature page could be scanned into the system and would verify that the teacher had signed off on the evaluation with the same hash. They couldn’t say later that they hadn’t seen the comments that were in their review. The solution (the insight) came from the fact that I was working on different things around the same time. I was able to look for solutions to the problem which bridged outside of the normal boundaries for the solution.

The kinds of connections that you have matter. Tight bonds will bring a group together into a cohesive unit creating the concern for groupthink. Groupthink is the problem where groups will begin to think alike and thus lose the diversity needed for new insights. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on group collaboration and groupthink.) However, tight bonds aren’t bad. Tight knit communities and connections to others at a deep level are powerful in their ability to improve our overall mood and health as was mentioned in my review of Change or Die.

However, as Everett Rodgers discovered and discussed in Diffusion of Innovations, the more cosmopolitan that someone is the more likely that they’ll adopt an innovation. Rodgers says that cosmopolitan people are more connected outside of their core sphere. They’re bridging people who bring innovations across different groups of people.

This blog is an attempt to be generally prepared for insights. I’ve mentioned part of my process of reading in my post Research in the age of electrons. That’s the mechanics of reading and capturing my notes for books. What’s missing is the process I go through after this to write the blog post. The whole process is designed from a learning perspective to ensure that I am able to internalize the concepts. In my writing I make a specific point to find the connections to other works that I’ve read, other reviews that I’ve done, and other concepts that are or at least seem to be related.

While some of the connections may be insights, I don’t expect that they are. I simply expect that by making connections frequently, by teaching my mind to look for them and explore them, that I’ll be able to find them in other areas of my life. As a side effect, readers of my blog can experience a pearl growing aspect of knowledge management. Pearl growing is the placing of links in the content to refer to other places for more information. The pearl growing technique helps adult learners find ways to have the content reach them where they’re at which is an essential part of adult learning (See The Adult Learner.)

Creative Desperation

We’ve all been in bad situations and have felt trapped at some point or another. While most of us haven’t been literally trapped, we’ve felt trapped. Words and phrases like “there is nothing I can do,” “It’s out of my hands,” and “it can’t be helped” are good examples of that feeling of being trapped. We’re trapped by our beliefs. We believe that we can’t change anything. Carol Dweck researched about this fixed mindset, this learned helplessness in her book Mindset. (See The Paradox of Choice, Who Am I?, and Bonds that Make Us Free for more about learned helplessness and Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, Change or Die, and The Fifth Discipline on the related topic of victimhood.)

Our beliefs trap us only to the point where we’re ready to reevaluate them and decide whether or not we can continue to afford those beliefs any longer. In Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries, the authors Cloud and Townsend speak about the boundaries that we create with other people – the beliefs we have about what we will and won’t allow. They break boundaries into defining boundaries – the violation of which would change who we are – and temporary boundaries – those that we need for now but may not be necessary forever.

No matter what the boundary type, we can create situations for ourselves that trap us. To get out of that trap requires that we remain stuck or creatively get out of the problem by changing one of our beliefs. This is at the heart of creative desperation. We’re pained by being trapped to the point that we change one of our beliefs. We create a solution – an insight – because we’re left with no other options.

Creative desperation may not be as popular a way to create insight because as humans we tend to be less creative when we’re stressed. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for more on the impact of stress and creativity.) However, despite this some people overcome this by using their focused energies on the problem in creative – and sometimes radical ways. The result is a special kind of insight.

Anchors Away

The language that Klein uses for beliefs is the word anchor. That is we’re anchored to a particular way of seeing things. Insight changes the way that you see the world. Just like the curse of knowledge (See The Art of Explanation), you can’t see the world the same way that you did before the insight. The old anchor – the old belief – that you had is gone, moved, or radically changed. That’s the job of insights, to change the way that you see the world. Ideally old anchors are replaced with new ones that free us from limitations.

Verbalization

One of the problems with trying to study insights is that the very act of asking people to verbalize their thinking process interferes with it – as we saw in The Paradox of Choice. In this case, the research says that those who were asked to describe why they liked something (a poster) liked it less. In the space of learning we know that assessing education too quickly can disrupt the educational process. (See Efficiency in Learning.) It’s no wonder why trying to understand what causes insights is so difficult. It’s something that you have to be careful about how you measure because the measurement interferes with the process itself.

A long time ago I was in a class by Denny Faurote and as a part of the exercise he offered up to the class that someone could try to build a puzzle pyramid. Unbeknownst to me when I volunteered to try to solve the puzzle, he actually disrupted my solving it. I was close and he injected a question to disrupt my thinking at the critical moment because the illustration wouldn’t have worked if I had solved the puzzle – and he feared that I was about to. He confided in me that he had done it after the class – and I wasn’t upset. To me it was interesting to see how sometimes subtle distractions can prevent insight.

Errors and Insights

Sometimes the disruption comes from intentional or unnatural sources and sometimes the disruption for insights comes from other systems inside the organization. Many organizations are faced with trying to do more with less. Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to minimize errors and disruptions. It’s fundamental to the process of organizing to be able to predict the outcome. It’s the point of an organization to create repeatability. Many organizations have implemented programs like Lean Six Sigma (LSS), which are designed to eliminate waste (lean) and errors (Six Sigma). However, Klein cites sources that state that organizations that have implemented programs like this ultimately end up trailing other organizations in overall performance. Why?

The answer seems to be that so much effort into reducing errors inhibits the ability to generate insights. Where LSS is implemented it’s hard to do something beyond the norm. It’s difficult to get the organization to take a chance, to take a risk, or to seize a disruptive opportunity. Insights are directly opposed to the kind of predictability and status quo that reducing errors requires.

I sometimes talk about natural and unnatural conflict. Natural conflict are conflicts that are natural and predictable. For instance, developers and IT infrastructure folks are naturally setup for conflict. IT infrastructure folks are measured on reliability and up time. Developers are measured on their ability to implement new features into the systems. New features introduce change and risk. There in is the natural conflict between the two groups. For one to do their job they have to make it harder for the other to do theirs. Errors and Insights are the same thing – one disrupts the other. If you err too much on the reduction of errors you’ll inadvertently reduce the insights.

Perseverance

How Children Succeed calls it “grit.” Dan and Chip Heath might call it “stickiness.” (Referencing their book Made to Stick.) Perseverance is one of the key characteristics of insights. While it may not be possible to determine whether you should stick to a belief and persist or whether you should simply persist at changing your frame of references, persistence in attempting to learn is key to generating insights. Join the journey by reading Seeing What Others Don’t and start your own persistence in finding the insights that others don’t.