Gaining insights

What happens when a sudden insight strikes you? The cognitive psychologist Gary Klein wanted to understand exactly that “light bulb moment“. What do we think, how do we think in such a moment? What leads us to having an insight? And why is “having the right information at the right time” not enough to draw the right conclusions?

Klein’s findings turn out highly complementary to Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From that triggered my recent series of posts on the adjacent possible. While Johnson is broadly interested in the environments that let good ideas flourish, Klein zooms in directly on the individual human to find out how we have those good ideas in the first place.

That lightbulb moment

Klein has a keen interest in human decision-making. According to his credo, improving performance in decision-making equals the simple sum of two approaches: reducing error and increasing insight. Given that avoiding mistakes and mitigating errors are already the subject of significant scientific research and at the heart of established management practice, Klein turned his attention to the second part of that equation: What can we do to have more and better insights?

You can follow his journey in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. His method of choice is unconventional enough, as he rejects the usual approach in psychological research, i.e., devising elaborate studies under controlled laboratory conditions. Instead, he pursues what he calls “a naturalistic investigation” by collecting reports of people having insights and then searching for commonalities and differences across those cases.

He started out from 120 historic as well as recent examples that covered a broad range of human activities and decision scenarios: from military operations to scientific breakthroughs to fire fighting to business decisions to law enforcement to personal observations in quite mundane situations. While gathering these 120 cases, Klein repeatedly sifted through the growing collection to gradually refine his core ideas about insights, what they are and how they come to us. It all boils down to the following, remarkably dense description: An insight is an unexpected shift to a better story.

  • Here, the word “story” is shorthand for “the story we tell ourselves about how things work“. It’s the story that conveys our understanding of the world around us. You might prefer the word “model” instead to denote the same idea: your mental representation of the situation you are in. An insight replaces one such story / model / representation with a new one that is more accurate, more comprehensive, and more useful.
  • Shifting to a better story then means re-arranging the underlying plot, restructuring of the fundamental storyline. This process demands that you change the anchors that hold our story in place. [Here again, you might prefer “building block” instead of “anchor” – the basic concept is the same.] One or more of these anchors / building blocks of our story / model have to be radically altered or even discarded, or an additional anchor / building block has to be included to the composition.

The triple path model

From his collection of 120 cases, Klein identified three patterns that can lead us to insights. The triple path model distills the main findings of his naturalistic investigation in one single chart:

Gary Klein’s Triple Path Model

Each of the three paths leads to the same outcome: Each gives us an insight that changes our understanding of the situation we are in. But each has its own trigger, and each causes a different activity that ultimately shifts our story to the better.

At the centre of the chart is the connection path. It is triggered by a new piece of information that lets us spot an implication we hadn’t realised before, so that we add a new anchor to our story and rebuild our storyline accordingly. It’s like a movie plot, where you might introduce an additional character or inject an additional scene.

  • Within this path, Klein combines three approaches that deviate slightly in the way that our thinking is triggered. For a connection, the new piece of information provides important additional details. In the case of a coincidence, a repeated observation inspires us to investigate further, while our curiosity is triggered by a single event that makes us dig deeper.
  • Either way, Klein is adamant that the connection path entails much more than “connecting the dots”. Connecting the dots that are ultimately part of the final story is only the last leg of a journey. Prior to that, we have to identify and exclude the non-dots, refute the anti-dots, as well as characterise and then deal with the ambiguous dots. All that needs to be achieved before we arrive at only those dots that make for a coherent story that conveys our changed understanding.

The contradiction path (on the left of the chart) is triggered when we find an inconsistency in our current story, when a new observation “tells” us that something is seriously wrong in our current understanding. On this path, we use a weak anchor to rebuild the story. It’s as if what used to be just a minor support act now becomes a lead role.

Finally, we are triggered toward the creative desperation path (on the right) when we have to escape an impasse. This is an active and deliberate effort to break free from what seems an inescapable trap. In order to get free, we discard a weak anchor. To use a movie analogy again: You find a support role or a scene that is a distraction from the core story – and you delete that part of the plot .

These three paths to insights are somewhat abstract categories, but Klein presents numerous examples to highlight the characteristics of each path and the differences between them. At the same time, those examples illustrate the communalities across the paths, they add detail and depth to general description of an insight as an unexpected shift to a better story. When an insight arrives, it is unambiguous and coherent. And so is the new story. We feel a sense of closure that gives us confidence in the insight, the confidence that “this is it”. Yet Klein points out that this shift is a discontinuous discovery; it doesn’t naturally evolve from our previous beliefs. An insight doesn’t arrive as if we were to pick and choose the best idea from a range of options. It’s not that we pick the insight, it’s more like the insight picks us. We are struck by it. In the most positive sense. To cite Gary Klein verbatim:

An insight is a leap, an unpredictable leap, to a related but different story. It catches us by surprise because it isn’t the product of conscious, deliberate, deductive, or statistical inferences.

Insight and innovation

You might ask yourself what that means for innovation, or how insight relates to innovation. It’s evident that insight is not the same as innovation. But insights clearly lead to innovations. And I believe that insights are actually foundational to any innovation.

To my mind, insights are the wellspring of novelty. They do not only give us the initial idea for that novel problem-solution we will pursue. Throughout the ensuing process of developing and maturing that initial idea to ultimately implement a solution, innovators take a long, winding road, full of roadblocks and barriers, dead ends and detours. And for many of those, a standard operating procedure doesn’t exist. Not all those challenges will be of the creative desperation type. Contradictions and connections will certainly play their part as well. But the bottom line is as simple as this: No insights, no innovation!

Hindrances and encouragements

Given that essential role of insights for successful innovation, the logical next questions are: What stops us from having insights? And how can we have more insights? And Gary Klein already tackled those questions as he developed the triple path model sketched out above. He took a thorough look at the human, technological, and organisational obstacles that keep us from having insights, and the ways for enhancing our ability to have insights. It should be interesting to compare Klein’s observations with Steven Johnson’s analysis of the conditions that foster good ideas. That’s the topic of the upcoming post.

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