Second Thoughts

What have I learned about insight in the past two years?

Posted Feb 19, 2015

Is there anything I wish I could change or add to my book Seeing What Others Don’t? The book was published in June 2013, but I had to freeze my writing and revisions in February 2013, so I have now had two years to reflect on the book. The paperback edition is coming out next month, in March 2015.

In this piece, I want to provide an overview of the ways my thinking about insights has changed.

But don’t get me wrong. I am very pleased with the book. I am also pleased with the reception it has received. I am proud of the contribution it makes to the field of insight, and I have no regrets about what the book covers. Should I have waited longer before publishing it? I don’t think so, because most of what I have learned has come through responses to the book. Only by publishing it could I have garnered these lessons learned. None of my books is ever really completed—there are always revisions I would make as my thinking on the topic continues to develop.

I have been describing some lessons learned in this Psychology Today blog. Once or twice a month I add a new idea, most of them about insights. As of February 2015 I have posted 30 entries that take my thinking about insight further and give my audience a chance to follow along with me. This is the 31st. I have covered topics such as painful insights, hidden assumptions, and big data versus deep insights. I have presented what is perhaps the most significant elaboration of my model of insight, extending the Creative Desperation path to include instances where we search for leverage points to build new courses of action. 

I have given a lot of thought to ways to foster more insights. As I explain in Chapter 14, much of the conventional advice seems unhelpful. Since the book was published, I have become even more convinced of this point. But I have also sought to go beyond critiquing other ideas, to try to come up with some advice of my own, and one piece of advice is to play around with different perspectives such as the PreMortem method of imagining that a project has failed in order to identify weaknesses that might not be readily apparent. 

Another suggestion that I am even more excited about is a scenario-based approach called the ShadowBox method. It is aimed at helping people see the world through the eyes of experts without the experts having to be present. I have been developing and using this method for the past year and finding that ShadowBox training seems to foster insights on a regular basis, by having trainees choose between options at decision points within a scenario, record the rationale for their choices, and then see what the experts chose and, more important, what reasons the experts offered. The trainees are then directed to identify what the experts were noticing and thinking about that they, the trainees, hadn’t considered. 

Moving up from the individual to the team level, I considered including a chapter in this book about team insights—the ways that insights often emerge through teamwork, rather than the exclusive product of one person’s thinking. But I decided to cut that chapter because it interrupted the flow of the book. It is a topic that seems worth considering in the future.

And moving up one more level, from the team to the organization, I have had a number of opportunities to actually work with organizations which are trying to have more insights, giving me a chance to advance my thinking. 

The most important thing I have learned in working with organizations is that the up-arrow/down-arrow diagram that appears on the first few pages of this book is even more powerful than I imagined. For organizations, it conveys the message that most of their effort is about the down arrow, which seeks to avoid mistakes and reduce uncertainty but doesn’t lead to discoveries. Down-arrow thinking encourages passivity. In contrast, organizations that truly do want to innovate need to pay proper attention to the up arrow, the encouragement of insights. The talk I give to organizations these days is titled, “Playing to Win,” as opposed to the down-arrow effort to avoid errors. Also, I have developed a short questionnaire for helping organizations get a better sense if they have appropriately balanced the two arrows in the diagram.

I have also come to see that an earlier idea, Management by Discovery (as a complement to Management by Objectives), provides a way to achieve insights in working on Wicked Problems and projects with ill-defined goals

Since the book appeared in print I have experienced the afterglow of publishing a book that I really enjoyed writing, watching its ideas spread, and receiving numerous letters and messages from readers thanking me for my effort. I have become more fully immersed in the up arrow as an advocate for insights. I hope that my readers will share some of my enthusiasm and will find ways to gain their own insights. 

Note:  This material is taken from the Foreward I wrote for the Korean edition which just came out in January 2015. The Korean publisher asked me to bring my thinking up to date, which I have tried to do. Then I thought it might be useful to share my reflections with the readers of my Psychology Today blog.