Maybe there is a way to increase our chances of making discoveries.
In the past few months I have been examining a new strategy for boosting insights. I am calling it an Insight Stance (In/Stance). Before I explain what an In/Stance is, I want to go over some of the thinking that got me there.
One thing I did was to try to learn lessons from existing approaches. My previous entry, Part 1, listed some of the most popular suggestions for increasing insights and explained why I didn’t think any of them would work. These limitations can help us see what an effective insight strategy needs to do. First, it should dramatically increase the success rate. Some of the strategies seek to generate lots of options. These may lead to more insights but they’ll also produce many bad ideas, so we’ll have to do a lot of work to filter out all the ideas we can’t use. A fruitful insight strategy won’t produce lots of losers. Second, a good insight strategy will help us learn from failures without pretending that we love failures or want to learn fast by failing fast. Failures hurt, and while we can get smarter as we lick our wounds, it’s better not get wounded in the first place. Third, we may want to keep an open mind but an open mind is too passive, and insights arise from being actively curious. Besides, sometimes we gain insights by being skeptical and contrarian.
Another source of ideas was to contrast people who gained insights with others who didn’t. In my study of 120 insights, I found 30 incidents that included a contrasting “twin”: a person who had the same information as the one who gained the insight, but failed to make the discovery. I compared the two people in each of these cases, the one who had the insight and the one who missed it. Here are the differences I spotted: The failure twin often got trapped by his/her flawed beliefs whereas the person who gained the insight was able to escape from mistaken beliefs. In addition, the successful twin had an active mindset whereas the failure twin was just passively doing his/her job without giving it much thought. Also, the successful twin seemed to relish speculating about how things might work differently whereas the failure twin was often a concrete thinker and impatient with these flights of fancy.
The Insight Stance emerged from these observations. Before I describe it, I’d like you to adopt an inquiring mindset rather than a skeptical one. Skepticism comes naturally to many of us when we first encounter a new idea, but I’d like you to defer your skepticism for a bit. Once I explain the In/Stance you can and should shift back into a critical mode. However, you’ll get more out of this exercise by imagining how you might use the In/Stance. It’s like trying on new clothes, you want to start with enthusiasm.
The In/Stance is a mental set we adopt for encountering new ideas and events. Others have advocated a meditative stance, or letting our minds wander, but I am suggesting the reverse: we can adopt an active, curious mindset, preparing to be delighted by discoveries. Advocates of Critical Thinking encourage us to use a skeptical stance, and again, the In/Stance is just the opposite, promoting curiosity and exploration.
We can focus this mindset in a few ways. To adopt the In/Stance, (a) we will wonder about inconsistencies and anomalies instead of dismissing them or explaining them away. We don’t want to get distracted by every anomaly, but we will spend a few seconds noticing anomalies or contradictions that might be important, and thinking about what they might mean. (b) We will wonder about coincidences, not every coincidence, but ones that seem promising. (c) We will give a freer rein to our curiosity, spending a bit more time speculating about the implications of events or ideas that aren’t on the main path we are pursuing. (d) We will be alert to unexpected connections between ideas. (e) We will notice leverage points that might help us when we get stuck, alternative ways to move forward when our usual problem-solving methods aren’t working. These are all the different pathways that I identified when I analyzed the 120 cases in my research project. They are the pathways that lead to insights.
We can’t sustain this In/Stance indefinitely, but I think we can learn to enter into it more easily, more often, and for longer periods than usual. It might be a habit of mind that we can practice. One exercise is to actively celebrate the insights we have, the small ones as well as the large ones. If you are like me, you spend a fair amount of mental energy brooding about stupid decisions and dumb mistakes. What if we devoted some more mental energy to noticing insights we’ve had and savoring our successes? These could be industrial-strength insights like a new idea for a product or service. Or they can be small-scale, like diagnosing why a cell phone is giving us trouble and fixing the problem. Or smaller-scale yet.
A few days ago I noticed some workmen in my apartment building fiddling with a door in the “C” wing. I came to a locked door to the staircase in the “B” wing, but when I punched in the code, the door didn’t unlock. Very strange. I tried a few more times, then gave up and took the elevator. Later, as I passed the locked door to the “A” wing, I tried the code and again had no success. And then it hit me. The workman must have been fitting a new combination lock to the staircase in the “C” wing. Up to now, it was the only one that had allowed free entry. The workman had been located in the vicinity of the “C” wing door — I hadn’t paid much attention when I passed them. And in installing the new lock, they must have changed the code for the doors leading to the two other stairways because you want all the doorlocks to have the same entry code. And then I remembered reading an announcement that all residents needed to be more alert to intruders because some thieves had been spotted breaking into a car parked nearby on the street. Suddenly it all fit together. That’s why the old code wasn’t working. Sure enough, that afternoon we got a notice with the new code. This isn’t a major insight, but it was a pleasing one.
We have these kinds of insights all the time. Let’s take note of them, perhaps enter them in an insight diary. We want to encourage ourselves to enter into an In/Stance more often.
Not all my insights are so trivial. A week ago, two colleagues interviewed a physician in a community healthcare facility about ways for his clients to better control the symptoms of diabetes. The physician explained that the population served by this facility was so poor and disordered that little could be done. My colleagues trudged back to the office, discouraged. My immediate reaction was that they should have asked the physician if anyone in the community was doing a good job of controlling diabetes. Are there any outliers, any positive deviants? Sure, this is a difficult population to work with, but we can still search for leverage points.
The In/Stance seems like a different way to go through our daily activities. It may counteract any rigidity of thinking that might develop with age. Instead of holding on to our existing beliefs we can be alert for ways to replace them.
The In/Stance might counter the dread we experience when things don’t go as planned. It should foster a sense of wonder and exploration as we as we are forced to — or rather, as we are allowed to — improvise and see what we can discover. That’s one of the ways I distinguish experts from people who are merely proficient. The journeymen get frustrated when none of the standard techniques work. The experts get a sparkle in their eyes as they take on the new challenge. The In/Stance is intended to promote that attitude in all of us.
How does the In/Stance play out with organizations? That’s the topic for Part 3.