Seeing What Others Don't

The remarkable ways we gain insights

Leverage

How we spot opportunities

Soon after World War II began, the British cities, particularly London, were getting clobbered by Nazi bombers. Against all expectations, Winston Churchill kept his country from quitting. The British sent their battered fighter pilots up again and again to try to counter the German attacks.

And then came an ominous turn. Adolf Hitler boasted about a new weapon that was going to make things even more desperate for the United Kingdom. The British intelligence service tried to anticipate what Hitler had in store for them so that they could try to find ways to counter it.

British intelligence had some evidence that the Germans were developing a pilotless bomb that could fly across the English Channel with a ton of explosives, aimed right at London. We now know that this was the V-1 weapon, a flying bomb. The British scientists wanted to understand its accuracy, speed, range and payload. British intelligence had previously cracked the German Enigma code, so they got some tidbits that way. They determined that the new weapon was being housed in Peenemünde, in Germany, and sent airplanes to take photographs. But scattered messages and photographs weren’t enough. They wanted to know how it flew.

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Then one of the chief scientists in British Intelligence, R.V. Jones, had an idea. (Jones describes this incident in his wonderful book, The Wizard War.) If the Germans were getting ready to use this new flying bomb, they were going to have to test it first. Because the new weapon was being housed in Peenemünde, the Germans would be running their flight tests from that location. They weren’t going to test the weapon to the west, where it could be observed. They only had one obvious flight path for their tests, up the Baltic coast to the east-northeast of Peenemünde. Also, the Germans would want to track the flying bomb during its flight tests, almost certainly using radar.

However, Jones knew that the Germans hadn’t developed very sophisticated radar systems and hadn’t really developed a highly skilled set of radar operators. The German Army radar was used to detect slow-moving British bombers. But tracking the V-1 was going to be hard because from every indication it was going to fly about 10 times faster than airplanes.

The Germans did have two units of radar operators that stood out from the rest, the 14th and 15th Companies of their Air Signals Experimental Regiment. So in April, 1943, Jones went to Bletchley Park, the British intelligence station where the Enigma decoding was going on, and made a request. He asked them to please let him know if either of these German radar companies, the 14th or the 15th, got re-assigned to the area east-northeast of Peenemünde, where the flight tests were likely to occur.

Months later, June 1943, this shot-in-the-dark paid off. Bletchley Park contacted Jones and told him that the 14th Company was moving to the supposed flight test area. In the autumn of 1943, the British had a ringside seat to the German tests. The German 14th radar company transmitted the V-1 test results via the Enigma system and the British, who had broken that code, simply listened in, learning the V-1 characteristics and finding ways to neutralize it.

Jones had spotted several leverage points. First, the Germans were going to have to test their new system, and the British could take advantage of these tests. Second, Jones didn’t have to track the V-1. He could simply listen in on the recordings from the German trackers. Third, the Germans would likely use one of their best radar companies, so by locating those companies the British could determine when the tests were going to start, and could read the reports transmitted by that company.

Spotting leverage points is a type of insight. But which type? Where do leverage points fit in the Triple Path model of insight that I have been developing? Not on the connection path and not on the contradiction path, both of which rely on accidental discoveries. I think leverage points fit on the creative desperation path of insights.

The creative desperation path is for deliberate efforts, such as the one R.V. Jones used to study the V-1. Leverage points belong on the creative desperation path, leading to a nice expansion of the Triple Path model. Previously, the creative desperation path was used to describe impasse situations in which we get trapped by a flawed assumption. Our insight is to identify and jettison the flawed assumption.

Now I am proposing a second aspect of the creative desperation path: to identify leverage points. Here, we are wrestling with a problem and deliberately search for constraints and affordances we can take advantage of.

We may use analogs. In the V-1 example, Jones used an analog described to him after World War I by a German scientist who wanted to monitor the shells from a long-range gun. The shells flew further than expected and were only discovered by accident. Jones recalled this WWI example when he tried to find a leverage point for studying the V-1.

I wrote about leverage points in Sources of Power (1998), viewing their importance for problem solving. I argued that leverage points, and affordances, cannot be identified by analyzing features of a situation because the leverage points depend on our abilities as well as on the situation. I used the example of a “hold” in rock climbing. What counts as a hold depends on the surface of the rock but also on our abilities and strength. In the V-1 example, Jones spotted leverage points because of what he knew about the German weapons development process but also because of what he know about his own system — about Bletchley Park’s success with the Enigma code. Spotting leverage points depends on insights about how we can use our own resources.

 

Gary Klein is Senior Scientist at MacroCognition LLC; his most recent book is Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights.

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