Releasing the insights you’re unwittingly caging and realising the opportunity to innovate (part four)
Throughout this series of articles I’ve been examining how and why insights become trapped within organisations. The trajectory an insight follows and the impact it can have depends on a number of factors, including the individual who discovers it, the organisational culture in which it exists, and the systemic and structural barriers it must overcome. Overcoming these insight traps is a challenge I face frequently, so I’d like to conclude this series of articles by sharing some tried and tested ideas for setting insights free.
In my experience, the secret to unleashing the power of an insight in any type of organisation is to communicate it well, and to encourage colleagues and clients to experience firsthand the possibilities that insight opens up.
As human beings, we use stories to make sense of our experience of the world. We do this, without conscious thought, every day of our lives. As literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall puts it, we “impose the order of story structure on the chaos of existence.”
What’s important about stories is understanding why they’re so effective at transmitting meaning and understanding. Stories enable knowledge to become embodied in the person consuming it. Neuroscience studies show that stories aren’t passively processed by our brains — instead, they are processed as if we’re actually experiencing what’s happening in that story. This process creates an emotional connection and encourages an empathy that you can’t get from simply presenting facts, figures and statements to an audience. Your insights are much more likely to be acknowledged and acted upon if you can tell a story with them. I often use anecdotes about real people to give insights more of a human element. They make the insights real and believable to the people you’re trying to persuade and inform. Don’t mistake vox-pops for insights though. The human stories you share need to illustrate your insights, not replace them!
The viral power of insight memes
Although stories are the best way to communicate insights and findings, they’re not easy for others to repeat with accuracy. It’s therefore helpful to turn insights into memes.
Memes are vehicles for carrying cultural ideas. They shape beliefs, either by reinforcing existing cultural norms or, as is the case with insights, spreading new ones through replication, repetition and imitation. Memes can take many forms — they can be ideas that are written down or spoken, they can be shared through practices such as gestures or rituals, or seen in images, videos, and models. For memes to spread virally they need to be succinct, easy to grasp and feel true to your audience.
Insights only really have an impact if they influence the thinking and the culture of the whole organisation. The more an insight is shared, the more likely it is others will believe in it and act upon it. Think about how you might intentionally design the communication of insights so they have maximum viral potential. Imagine you’re writing a newspaper headline — how might you grab someone’s attention with your insights if you were trying to communicate in written form? Don’t be afraid to use a pun if it gets your message across! If you’re going for something more visual then try to keep it simple — remember that the whole point of a meme is that it can be easily replicated by someone else. If it’s a diagram it needs to be something someone else can easily draw. If it’s a photograph it needs to dramatise what you’re trying to communicate without being visually cluttered.
Make the practice of insight development visible
Human beings are highly social animals. We love being in each other’s company and we love sharing our experiences. The connectedness we exhibit as a species has a massive influence on the way we learn. As children we mimic what we see and hear our parents doing, which enables us to engage with the world. It turns out that this mimicking behaviour is something we continue to do, often unconsciously, into our adult lives. Alex Pentland, Director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT, has demonstrated through his research that we adopt “automatic social learning” all the time, because it’s more efficient than trying to learn solely from our own experiences. He has shown that this social learning doesn’t just come from actively mimicking our closest peers, but also indirectly from simply being exposed, even peripherally, to new behaviours.
This is why it’s so important to make the journey that an insight takes you on visible to others, so that they can see how the challenges, opportunities and unexpected avenues of exploration insights throw up are of value. Exposure to a new, insight-driven, way of working, that doesn’t align with organisational norms, can subtly but powerfully challenge the cultural and systemic blockers that prevent insights from working their magic.
It’s tempting to keep a lid on your insights and ideas before they’ve been realised for fear of looking the fool if something fails. Locking you and your team in a war room feels like a sensible way to create a safe space for ideas and creativity to flourish, but also for failures to be brushed over and hidden. Wanting a safe space to explore the potential of an insight is natural when the potential traps you’re up against can be crushing, but what if your whole organisation could be that safe space, rather than a single room? The only way to make that happen is to share the whole rollercoaster an insight will take you on. Open the war room door and share the ride.
Make the potential of your insights your mission
As I said in the first article in this series, there is a real euphoria to discovering an insight, but there is also a sense of certainty about them. When you hit upon an insight you’ll find that you develop a strong resolve to see it through; to ensure that it is recognised, accepted and acted upon. You might be battling against some powerful traps along the way, but if you want to help your organisation imagine what’s next, making the potential of your insight your personal mission is the only way to ensure it gathers the momentum it needs to have impact. Passion for an insight is infectious, and is key to making sure your insight stories and memes are repeated and shared.
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Read the previous article on how systems and processes cage insights.