My research uncovered three different pathways for gaining insights: making connections (and also seeing coincidences); spotting contradictions; and a creative desperation path in which we break free from flawed assumptions.
Each path has its own set of tactics for trying to gain insights. In my last entry, I described the pitfalls of each path. Now I want to describe how each path opens up different methods and opportunities.
Connection Path. The connection path works best if we can sustain an active mindset, not just running on automatic but being alert to nuances and implications. Ellen Langer would call a mindful stance as opposed to a mindless, tuned-out stance. It is not clear how easy it is to be more mindful, in-the-moment; I suspect that we can become more mindful and present than we typically are.
When we shift to a more active mindset we will also engage in more anticipatory thinking: imagining how events might unfold. We are not predicting the future, just sensing opportunities and risks we might not have otherwise noticed.
The active mindset helps us explore anomalies that we might otherwise dismiss, opening up new possibilities for gaining insights.
Steven Johnson has suggested that we would gain more insights by exposing ourselves to a greater variety of ideas. I am not convinced of this advice — it seems anecdotal. Nevertheless, such a strategy certainly fits the connection path.
Another suggestion is to try to shift into a tranquil mood that allows remote associations to form and gain consciousness by letting our minds wander. Again, I am skeptical because the tranquil, dreamy state seems counter to an active mindset. Also, in the sample of 120 insights that I studied, not a single one emerged through a deliberate attempt to shift into a meditative state. However, my suspicions may be unfounded. The use of a tranquil, dreamy state to encourage remote associations fits within the connection path.
Contradiction Path. For contradiction insights we need to react differently to conflicts, confusions, problems, failures, miscalibrations. Our natural tendency is to paper over the differences, to smooth out the perturbances, to resolve the disagreement, in order to regain harmony on our team and harmony among our thoughts. However, contradictions require us to sharpen the disagreements and conflicts and take them more seriously. Contradiction insights flow more easily when we pursue the “what-ifs” instead of being impatient with idle speculation.
We often try to dismiss conflicts by explaining away the discrepancy, but connection insights only emerge when we take the discrepancy seriously and imagine the implications if the discrepancy was valid. In working with a team, conflicts and confusions may surface, disrupting the harmony of the team. It is natural to way to smooth out the conflict but we would be better served by inspecting the conflict to see what we can learn. The conflict often makes us uncomfortable because it implies that we haven’t thought things out as clearly as we should. And that’s the point. The conflict and confusion within a team is pointing us to the areas that haven’t been thought out so well, exposing areas that contain opportunities for useful discoveries.
The PreMortem method that I have described previously works so well because it deliberately invites disagreements. It invites the team members to surface doubts and inconsistencies. In a PreMortem, the team members independently list everything that worries them about a new plan or project. This method threatens the complacency of the group. Too often, complacency masquerades as harmony.
Creative Desperation Path. The creative desperation path aims to find a flawed assumption that is blocking a way forward. Simply listing our assumptions won’t work because very often the critical assumption is one we are not even aware we are making. As with the contradiction path, one way forward is to become alert to anomalies and inconsistencies that may hold a clue to the flawed assumption.
A more aggressive strategy is to deliberately try on different perspectives to see what might be learned. As described in an earlier posting, these trial perspectives might include viewing ourselves through the eyes of a competitor, viewing our situation through the eyes of a successor who is not tied to sunk costs that might be trapping us, imagining that we are overlooking some weak signals, and a PreMortem scenario described above.
Incubation. One of the debates in the insight literature is about the value of incubation. Some believe that incubation can help us achieve insights, others point to research studies that found little benefit. Without choosing sides in this debate, it might still be useful to think about ways that incubation might work. If incubation helps by letting us recover from mental fatigue, that points to the creative desperation path — and to our struggles with an impasse. If incubation works by sparking remote association, then we are dealing with the connection path and with joining different ideas. If incubation makes it easier to build on chance events, that indicates the connection path and noticing the significance of unexpected cues, but it also touches on the contradiction path and musing about inconsistencies that have gained awareness through the chance events. Therefore, the different mechanisms for incubation might be linked to the three paths we take in gaining insights.
Because each insight path is supported by different tactics, we shouldn’t expect any universal remedy to free us from the shackles that prevent insights.