How to be insightful

By Sam Knowles, Founder & MD of Insight Agents and Yurt Academy Keeper

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding among many people in the workplace today that only creative people can be creative. That if you want – say – to create a campaign that’s going to change the way people think and behave, you need a team of creative people or a creative agency to develop it for you. That creative people are fundamentally different from the rest of us.

It is of course true that if you want to make a film or a website or an infographic that expresses an idea, you do need people with specific – sometimes artistic – skills. But there’s a step before creativity and creative expression and it’s a skill that we all possess. That step is the fundamentally human capacity of insight.

Having an insight or being insightful is defined as “having a profound or deep understanding of someone or something”. This is something we’re all good at, whether we’re accountants or advertising agency creatives, data analysts or creative artists. Humans are great at making new things out of old. As Vilfredo Pareto said, less famously than his 80/20 rule: “An idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements.” Or as Oscar Wilde said: “Talent borrows. Genius steals.”

Consider the iPod. Or the iPhone. Or the iPad. With none of these products was Apple first to market. MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets were all available before Steve Jobs and his teams brought Apple’s versions to market. What’s differentiating about Apple products is the combination of existing product ideas with Apple’s unique “no-manual”, “make technology your slave and not your master” purpose. That, and Jonny Ive’s eye for beauty and detail. That’s a heady combination, and one that led Apple to market dominance by volume and value. It’s what allowed the iPod to dispatch the funkier, better sound quality of Dell’s Digital Jukebox – hell, it even had a better name – to the product graveyard.

Insight is also the ability to see connections between things where no-one had seen connections before. It’s a defining characteristic of really great insights that, at first glance, they can often appear to be so blindingly obvious that “surely someone must have thought of it before”. Insights often touch on fundamental human truths. A glimpse inside the mind of those you’re looking to influence, insight shines a light on a possible solution to a problem we define. Insights increase the chances of creative breakthrough, make the creative process less random, and incite behaviour change.

What’s more, being insightful – or more correctly, being MORE insightful, more often, on demand – is also something that can be taught and learned. Paradoxically as a creative process, it benefits from a rigorously structured process. When I teach insightful thinking, I encourage and enable people to take four steps to being more insightful.

1. Sweat– be curious and take on board more stimulus, from many and varied sources. The more possible elements you have to combine in your subconscious, the more combinations your brain will make. Good ones will surface and pop into your consciousness.

2. Timeout– deliberately distract your mind from the problem you’re trying to solve, the insight you’re trying to have. Take a step away from the challenge, do something else – often physical and involving exercise – and allow your mind to do its combinatorial best.

3. Eureka– recognise what it feels like to have a breakthrough insight. Be ready for it – emotionally as well as intellectually. Sometimes even physiologically – a knot in the stomach, a feeling of great excitement, a strong sense of conviction. Know how to capture the insight and communicate it.

4. Prove– before you get too wedded to your insight, share it with others. Before it’s too refined, get others to interrogate the connections you’ve made. You might be missing a fundamental flaw in your thinking that’s only too obvious to someone who’s not had a blinding flash of something that turned out not to be insightful after all. Beware false positives, and be prepared to reject.

It’s important also to say what insight isn’t. In the age of Big Data, it most definitely isn’t data. Or analytics. Or dashboards. Data and information is the raw material of insight, often – increasingly – filtered through the lens of analytics which present their findings via dashboards. But a genuine insight is much more than any of its component parts or processes that bring insights alive. Presenting data, analytics, or dashboards as insights is nothing more than casual observation.