Insights About Insights

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Insight is unquestionably the innovator’s most vital tool. But its edge is dulled by rampant ambiguity about just what insight is. To keep its edge sharp, it’s time to give it a helpful rub at the whetstone.

Text of Insights About Insights

  • Insight is unquestionably the innovators most vital tool. But its edge is dulled by rampant ambiguity about just what insight is, by an entrenched myth about where it resides, and by letting staleness creep in to the ways we extract it.

    To keep its edge sharp, its time to don the blacksmiths smock and give it a helpful rub at the whetstone.


  • In humble service to this incredible power source we call insight, and its immense value to the pursuit of innovation in any endeavor great or small, this paper sets out to do three things:

    01To bring overdue clarity to just what insight is. Theres a massively unhelpful misconception out there that insight somehow defies definition. Can we really look the world in the eye and say with a straight face that insight is all important, but were not telling you what it is? In a word, no. 0202To erase the invisible prefix.Most people in innovation practice will read the word insight inked on this page and immediately think consumer insight. If youre in the minority that take a broader view, congratulations. But if you cant help but add the prefix, heres a healthy provocation. Consumer insight is a critical half of innovations ignition system, but just half. Commercial insight is the other half, and with remarkable frequency, it proves to be the missing link separating success from failure, big from small, a rapid sprint to market from a slow slog, and profitable outcomes from costly wheel spinning. 03To refresh the insight hunters playbook with a six-pack of ways to invigorate your pursuit of insight. Any chef knows that if you change the way you apply the heat, youll transform the dish. Its no less true of how you apply heat to insight generation. Theres no holy grail here, but some worthy ways and means that work in our pursuits and may help yours.


  • Blush To Judgement

    QuestFor DefinitionIN AN AGE WHERE nearly every human and commercial phenomenon is measured, bench-marked and analyzed within an inch of its death, where businesses of immense scale are built on the premise of giving away things of value solely to acquire the sellable data beneath them, and where the relentless march of the digital algorithm threatens to neuter those precious human gifts we call intuition and instinct, this highly loaded term insight has been bought, sold, sliced, diced, diluted and bastardized with liberal abandon.

    Today, companies great and small face an unprecedented need for the growth that transformational innovation can unlock, and insight is the hard-edged flint from which innovations brightest sparks fly.

    But you cant get sparks by banging marshmallows together. Much of what is touted today as insight is merely information in sight insights distant ancestral cousin at best.

    Whats helping this unhelpful dilution run rampant is that so much about insight remains shrouded in ambiguity starting with the seemingly simple task of defining it...

    Webster calls it the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively. (This captures insight more as a capability than a thing.)

    IDEOs Tim Brown is no more helpful: That insight cannot yet be codified, quantified, or even definednot yet, at any ratemakes it the most difficult but also the most exciting part of the design process.

    Can we really look people straight in the eye and say insight is all important, but were not telling you what it is? In essence, youll know it when you see it?

    Being paid handsomely to help companies see opportunities they cant readily see themselves, we probably owe the world a better answer.

    I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it U.S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE Potter Stewart penned this classic line in 1964. He was talking about porn, and by refusing to sully his hands with the messy business of defining it, he instantly embedded I know it when I see it in the lexicon. (He also avoided the full frontal assault on the nations innocence that any definition authored by nine blushing septuagenarians would have unleashed.)

    The problem for innovators is that Stewarts non-definition could be airlifted verbatim into the nebulous conversation around insight. Its murky at best. On innovations front lines, where there is no shortage of unknowns in play already, thats nakedly unhelpful.

    No matter where you hunt for definition, you find scant satisfaction. Try the handy digital dictionary bundled into Microsoft Word and you get thisInsight (noun): 1) perceptiveness, 2) clear perception, 3) self-awareness, or 4) perception that hallucinations are not real. (No, youre not hallucinating. It really says that.)

    PART 01


  • InsideThe Insiders

    IF NOT THE MASSES, surely the pros have a straight-laced, straight-faced answer. A casual polling of some of the best and brightest at Fortune 100 companies along with highly respected researchers who buy and sell insight daily yields definitions like these: Its the a-haIts that door opener that says, hey, youre talking about meIts that goose bump momentIts an epiphany!

    These definitions aptly capture the wind that gusts through our hair when a great insight bursts into the room. (Yes, we know it when we see it!)

    But they dont even flirt with defining the thing were actually reacting to.

    Its like describing Parliament Funkadelic as music that makes you want to boogie. OK, thats the response, but whats the music?


    A coherent workable definition, it seems, is lost in the crowd.

    Has the wisdom of the crowd figured this out? Apparently not.

    Between the capability that begets it, and the reaction that comes in its wake, it seems weve got insight surrounded. But we still arent quite touching it.

    Insight is:A piece of information.

    (No, its never just that.)


    Insight is:An introspection.

    (Getting warmer, but again, thats just describing the capability.)


    Insight is:The act or result of understanding the inner nature of things.

    Insight is:An understanding of cause and effect based on identification of relationships and behaviors within a model, context, or scenariosee artificial intelligence.

    (Proof that saying specific and being specific are very different things.)

    Insight is:The understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context.



  • A Fresh, Potent & Energizing Truth

    A Freudian Blip

    foundational understanding than catalytic ignition.

    A fresh, potent truth, because there are many deep underlying truths about life or a business that are merely interesting cul de sacs. (While its true that the human eye can perceive more than a million colors, there isnt much innovation you can build off it, and its not really an insight.) To provide the sparks we need, our insights have to be richly laden with opportunity for transformation and new possibility. The potency we need usually comes from an unresolved tension.

    Physicists, engineers and architects obsess over tensile energy and strength. To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value. Throw the weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions. There is no prescription for the nature of that tension

    functional, emotional, experiential, interpersonal, sensory or financial tensions, or simply unfulfilled aspirations are all viable ways in.

    A fresh, potent energizing truth because yes, our reaction does matter. Insight needs to inspire and ignite ideas and action among the people it touches. Forget the images of the lonely inventor in the garage. Innovation is a team sport and great insights will electrify and galvanize teams around a sense of new possibility. No, we cant define insight solely by the reaction it creates. But its still a critical piece and source of its value.

    TO DECONSTRUCT IT, start at the end.

    Yes, your honor, theres a noun. A thing called truth. To be a truth is to be resonant and reflective of meaningful underlying reality. It doesnt mean an insight has to be universally true. Great insights are often found at the bellwether fringes. But it has to be true and ring true.

    In pursuit of transformational innovation, an insight can either be a truth about a human experience, aspiration, unmet need or tension, or about a business, category, strategic ambition, product or analog that points the way to profitable opportunity. (More on these commercial dimensions in a minute.)

    It is a fresh truth because if weve heard it before, chances are its a topical observation, evident to all, rather than a bona fide insight. Insight is a form of competitive advantage born of seeing things that our competitors cant. Old truths are table stakes, likely to be widely recognized across the competitive set, and therefore not a source of new competitive advantage. Even if were hunting for a new solution to an age-old problem, and leveraging accrued institutional knowledge, fresh answers require fresh perspective, be it from new depth of understanding, new connections between phenomena we didnt realize were connected, or some other source of new edge. But if its not fresh, its more likely to offer

    FRESH INSIGHTS ABOUT INSIGHTS come from our Head of Research, Dr. Barbara Nurenberg,Ph.D. a trained psychologist with an extraordinary gift for seeing through the layers of fog to what lies beneath.

    You want to know wh