Our ability to create insights is critical for innovation and adaptation. Otherwise we would remain stuck in mental ruts formed over our lifetime. Insights let us see things in new ways. Many people, however, have the wrong ideas about insights. Here is a short test, only 12 items, to assess your knowledge of insights. For each item, circle the number at the left if you agree with the statement and think it has been sufficiently established.

  1. Brainstorming is an effective method for groups to generate insights.
  2. Insights depend on having fresh eyes, which is why greybeards — the so-called experts — tend to be trapped by their previous experience.
  3. Organizations desire insights and encourage their workers to come up with out-of-the box ideas.
  4. The way insights emerge is that we run into an impasse, struggle for awhile, then let our minds wander under suddenly there is a flash of illumination.
  5. Correlation doesn’t imply causality, so we shouldn’t get sidetracked by coincidences.
  6. A major barrier to insights arises when we have flawed beliefs and assumptions.
  7. To correct flawed assumptions we should use critical thinking methods such as listing all the important assumptions we are making, to see which might be wrong.
  8. Scientists generate insights by running controlled experiments to test their hypotheses.
  9. Good scientists work carefully so that they won’t make erroneous claims.
  10. To handle a challenging project we should start by pinning down the goals so that we can systematically achieve success.
  11. Good ideas often come about by accident so we should expose ourselves to lots of different fields and different types of specialists.
  12. A well-designed computer workstation, tailored to the way we work so that it filters out irrelevant data and highlights the important cues, can boost our chances for having insights.

Let’s see how you did. Review your responses, changing any that don’t seem quite right. And here is the answer key: Zero. None of these items has been clearly established. Some are just wrong, contradicted by the data. Others seem unlikely and have not been supported by evidence. I go into greater detail in Seeing What Others Don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights, but here are some brief explanations.

  1. Brainstorming. A popular technique but the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that groups using it get fewer ideas, and less creative ones.
  2. Experience doesn’t get us into a rut unless the task is so repetitive and mindless that we tune out. A study of insights that I conducted found that experience was essential in 2/3 of the incidents.
  3. Organizations resist insights because they are dis-organizing and disruptive, and get in the way of smooth management. Most people view novel ideas as impractical and unreliable. 
  4. This impasse strategy sometimes holds, but it is only one of several different ways that insights emerge. In a sample of 120 insights, only 25% involved impasses.
  5. Correlation doesn’t prove causality but many important insights started out when someone noticed a coincidence.
  6. People who gain insights often held flawed beliefs. What set them apart is that they were able to abandon these beliefs whereas others fixated on their flawed beliefs and were trapped by them.
  7. The strategy of listing assumptions has never been shown to improve performance, and it doesn’t even make sense because the beliefs that trap us are often based on hidden assumptions that we aren’t aware we are making. So we would never list them.
  8. When scientists run experiments and get results that support their hypotheses they haven’t gained any insights at all. Only when the results don’t work out as expected do scientist have to seek insights. Other parts of the scientific method, such as just observing the phenomenon of interest, are richer sources of insight.
  9. Claims that can’t ever be wrong are usually pretty bland. Scientists would do better to make the most extreme claims they can defend. Unfortunately, too many scientists are so risk averse that they censor themselves.
  10. Many challenging projects involve “wicked problems” that don’t have a clear goal. The only path to success is to gain insights about the goal along the way. Locking in on the initial goal is likely to lead to failure.
  11. There is no clear evidence that deliberate exposure to lots of diverse ideas will result in more insights.
  12. A well-designed workstation may feel comfortable but it will trap us in our traditional routines and make it harder to have insights about better ways to do the job. If the workstation filters out “irrelevant” cues, it may filter the cues that might spark insights.  

The field of insight is marked by myths and superstitions. Only by exposing these outdated ideas can we expect to make progress in using our uniquely human talent to make discoveries and achieve insights.

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