How often have you wished for that unexpected moment of insight when a jumble of information suddenly coalesces into a solution for an impossible problem? In fact, this is a skill that can be cultivated to help us better understand our markets or develop vastly improved products or services. Here are some thoughts on how to harness the power of perceptiveness.
Develop Richer Observation Skills
Often, people we think of as insightful are actually just more disciplined and observant. The article “How to Understand and Develop Insight”1 points to a Zen-like form of observation, which includes techniques that are both meditative and traditionally scientific. Insightful people thoroughly study situations from multiple angles and think carefully about what they see. They consider how individual facets of an experience may interact with one another, as well as external events. This can create insight-building mental connections that elude the less observant.
Master Your Subject Matter
“In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
— Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille, France
Observation is always more fruitful when it is better informed. Individuals whose insights change history very often see more because they know more. They are devoted students of their individual fields of study, as well as farther-ranging disciplines. For example, Louis Pasteur, the renowned French microbiologist and inventor of vaccines, was an avid student of chemistry, physics and medicine and also invented the scientific field of stereochemistry.2
In business, the parallel is to be students of our industries, our competitors, emerging technologies and the social forces that act on both consumers and companies to propel unmet needs and purchasing behavior. The more we know, the more likely we are to capture the insight that changes the game.
To give insights room to germinate, it’s important not to force new information to fit into our pre-existing conception of the world. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described this model of cognitive development as “assimilation.” Piaget’s work also gives us the closely related but distinct learning process of “accommodation,” which involves “altering one's existing schemas, or ideas, as a result of new information or new experiences.”3 It’s the latter process—much tougher, more methodical and significantly slower—that often leads to the most valuable insights.
Exercises for Honing Your Insight
- Do some unconventional business research to relearn something you think you know already. Absolutely avoid the pedestrian. For example, try assigning a management-level individual to conduct interviews with people who aren’t current clients and find out why they aren’t doing business with you.
- Do secondary research at the fringes of your marketplace. Blogs and, especially, forums are great places to encounter unique perspectives that can lead to surprising insights about your core market.
- Try this fun way of practicing insightful thought processes: Pick up any of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic anthologies. Bill Watterson had a remarkable genius for unfettered, inside-out thinking. Don’t just read the panels. Work to discern the mental route that Watterson follows to transform a six-year-old’s encounter with the ordinary world into something completely unexpected…and so very insightful.
What are some great insights you’ve experienced? More importantly, can you recall the mental steps you took to jump from the ordinary to the insightful? Share them here!
 “Louis Pasteur,” Lemelson-MIT Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posted April 2003, retrieved Feb. 9, 2014.
 Kendra Cherry, “What is Accommodation?,” About.com Psychology, retrieved Feb. 16, 2014.