The Art of Insight

How childlike perspective is the gateway to big ideas
Vijit Singh
A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Insight is an elusive thing. Businesses like to think that they’re experts in their field and that they have the ‘most innovative’ or ‘most accurate’ way of doing things. What they call insight is often proficiency. They do what they do well, they’re experienced, but that doesn’t mean that they have a novel take on the problem they’re trying to tackle.

Rather than looking at insight as the sum total of many data points, I prefer to think of it as an artform. It isn’t something that you get when you have enough information or the perfect process. Instead, it hits you as a ‘light bulb’ moment where everything starts to fall into place.  

These light bulb moments are typically associated with creating ideas, but I think they’re so much more powerful in a different context. But it starts the process and powers the ideas.

We spend a lot of time looking at things scientifically and trying to conquer them in very precise ways. Sometimes it’s better to step back from the facts and definitions to look at things from a new angle. It’s about putting quality over quantity, and it’s the sweet spot between childlike creativity and mastering your craft.  

None of this will sound all that new to my innovation colleagues, creatives, and blue-sky thinkers out there. However, these perspectives just might help an entrepreneur who feels hemmed in by their current way of thinking. This perspective is also beneficial for a business that wants to try looking outside of their long-established processes or grasp it firsthand.  

So how can you look at the world through fresh eyes to arrive at better ideas? And how can you master a new way of doing things? Here are my thoughts on the creative process, and how keeping an inquisitive mind can lead to the best breakthroughs.  

Taking a Deep Dive into Other Worlds

When I talk about a light bulb moment, it seems that generating innovations is almost like flipping a switch. In truth, it’s a much longer process and the very best results come from a position of real understanding. They come when you’ve looked at a problem from many different angles and gained some perspective. It involves reflection, digestion and incubation before the “aha” moment takes place.

The first mistake businesses make when they set out to create something new is, they look for a specific solution to a well-defined problem. They should really be trying to gain a better appreciation of the issue(s) they’re trying to solve.  

The second mistake is to limit creativity by planning and testing out hunches in a ‘lab rat’ environment. I don’t think many people would disagree with me when I say that the people who sit on corporate boards are pretty far removed from the average person on the street. So, it’s no surprise that they struggle to discover truths that find a real resonance among ‘ordinary’ people. If the perception lacks resonance, the idea will typically fail too.

Taking a deep dive into different worlds means getting outside of your comfort zone and trying to see a problem from another perspective. Exploration leads to discovery, and it’s how you can borrow from your competitors, take inspiration from other industries and worlds, and combine a veritable rainbow of colourful experiences into thinking that brings real value to the table.  

This also involves applying systematic techniques alongside the creative. What's seen as left brain thinking but in a right brain way, just as the better creatives use right brain thinking in a left-brain way.

Starting from the Outside In

So many businesses end up doing things the wrong way around. They think up an idea in a sterile meeting room environment, create a product or service by mapping it out on a whiteboard, and then try to find customers who are a good fit for it. Why not start with the customer first?

Rather than starting with the solution and trying to find a problem, I think it’s more helpful to turn the process on its head. Instead of brainstorming the next big moneymaker, businesses would be better served by getting out into the world. They could be learning about people’s behaviours and attitudes. In other words, what they really need or want in their lives!

Whether it’s product development, brand strategy, or digital activation that you are tackling, you can learn a lot by spending time on the ground. Immerse yourself in the lives and cultures of real people in real worlds.  

This is where the concept of ‘non-lab-rat environment’ comes from, and I think it’s really important not to put up any sort of barrier between yourself and reality. There’s a lot to be said for ditching archaic corporate processes in favour of learning from authentic situations. Especially when you hire an external agency such as ours, which is about bringing the outside world in.  

How you curate the design of the project with all the elements engineered to lead you towards insight is crucial. For us, this represents an artform in itself, just as “The art of...” implies mastery in a particular field.

The Importance of Staying Stupid

The challenge with exploration is in keeping things simple – that's the complexity. What I mean is that as experienced, jaded professionals, we often have preconceived notions that we don’t leave at home.

When we come across something new, we’re quick to label it and to put it into a box in our heads with the things we’ve seen before. By doing this, we miss out on the potential that a slice of new information or experience can bring us. The best, and perhaps only, alternative is to leave our assumptions at home.  I often say to clients to “think like a child and see with new eyes.”

As adults, we can lose our fresh perspective and our sense of wonder, whereas children are inquisitive and find it much easier to marvel at the things they come across. By taking a step back we can begin to exclude our preconceptions to ‘stay stupid’. We stand a much better chance of appreciating what we hear and see for what they are and developing them to their fullest potential. 

Becoming an Artist

Just as artists follow their creative intuition, it’s important to use our ‘gut feel’, not just our heads and hearts. You don’t need a clever formula or a set of criteria to know that something is important or relevant. It’s a somewhat fuzzy, slightly ambiguous, and widely misunderstood topic that is, in my opinion, all about instinctively knowing that you’re onto something new.  

When we stop looking at things through the prism of our existing experiences, we make breakthroughs. That’s what this discovery process and is all about, and you only need one of those moments of clarity for it to then inspire a flood of ideas. This is not a numbers game.  

Getting Comfortable with Creativity

Once you’ve had that light bulb moment, the challenge is in putting it to good use without it losing its sparkle. I often find that businesses want to apply quantitative metrics and validation around something that’s essentially qualitative.  

Sometimes this ends up as an exercise in identifying which other companies have executed in a particular way, and even how it turned out for them. The problem with this approach is that if it’s been done before, it isn’t really the new game changing or ‘blue-sky’ thinking that we were looking for in the first place. Creative processes involve an element of risk, it’s about being comfortable with that, and being conscious of the benefits a possible change could bring.

If an insight really is brand new; you can’t benchmark it against existing criteria. The trick here is to accept the genuine newness or richness that comes with a level of risk attached. If you want to benefit from what you discover, you need to embrace the unknown as an opportunity - or as a really interesting challenge, depending on your perspective.

Coming Around to the New Way of Being

Looking back, I started my argument with a quote and will end it with an adage. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that couldn’t be truer for this creative process. If you can strip back a thousand words to a picture, you can do the same with a life experience.  

There are moments in our immersive explorations that stand out. I often use the analogy of a star that shines more brightly than any other. Think of this as a snapshot to focus in on, and from every angle, until it attains absolute clarity.  

This is the moment of discovery, the moment when you unearth something startlingly new or rich about people’s needs and wants, and in the context of the world they live in. That then inspires innovations. There is no need to turn over every stone to get there.

Insight is art. It gives us the chance to develop the groundbreaking, life changing thoughts and ideas that businesses - and the wider world - crave. If you can see the bigger picture, you create your work of art. Perhaps more so today, than ever before.

February 2021
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