Insight – and how we have it

insightThis is a great addition to any discussion on how the brain works, creativity and innovation. Because what is insight if it isn’t part of the novel discovery process that makes life creative?

Gary Klein is one of a club of psychologists who all appreciate each other’s work. (I was quite delighted to read Kahneman and  enjoy ticking off the other contributions that I had already read)

An appreciation of the automatic and reflective processes inside the brain is important when you think about insight. We have a system that functions very efficiently and won’t give us any insights unless we act on surprises, intuitions and cognitive disconnects. Unfortunately we also have a storytelling and explaining ability that will pave over the cracks as soon as they appear with plausible explanations.

This work came about because in his decision making work Klein wanted to define performance improvement, not only as an absence of errors but also as a learning process with greater insights. Trouble was everyone had done error management to death and liked the idea of increasing insights – so Klein was on the spot to come up with how that should be done. After collecting 100 or more stories of remarkable insights, Klein created a decent framework to help us all understand.

Klein’s work gives us the following ‘triple path’ model to insights. One of the lessons from this book is the importance of listening to the triggers. A contradiction (the fire doesn’t sound right) led a fire commander to evacuate his team before the floor beneath them collapsed. We need to let ourselves sit with contradiction while our reflective selves explores many plausible stories to gain insight.

Connections, coincidences and curiosities can also trigger new thoughts if we don’t let them pass us by. Interestingly though, Klein’s stories included a number that appeared to be driven purely by the desperation that an impasse causes.


I mentioned before that we are great storytellers. Our brains are up against a plausible story that explains something even when we have noticed a trigger. Our challenge is to resist accepting the story and moving on. Klein’s concept of anchors appears at this point. How do we grasp at the anchor that is most fragile or new and reframe what might be happening? You can imagine how hard this is can’t you? but also transformative because those narratives we believe with our whole emotional body and changing them is quite a deep process.

It won’t be any surprise that organisations can stifle insights. Sometimes a counter narrative simply isn’t welcome so others will take time to agree that something needs to change – much to the agitation of anyone who has had the insight and already fundamentally changed their narrative.

Ways to have insights include pursuing the feeling that something isn’t quite right, exposing yourself to new and different worlds and thoughts and enforcing some critical thinking. Of course creating time for reflection is also important because that flash of inspiration often comes when all the elements of a good breakthrough have been set up and your mind just needs to mull.

Happy thinking!


About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
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