You’re unwittingly caging insights and missing the opportunity to innovate (part one)

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Throughout my career as a design strategist, I’ve gone out of my way to experience life in lots of different types of organisation. I’ve worked in-house at a small environmental charity, and at a global financial corporation. I’ve experienced life in massive marketing groups and tiny design studios. I’ve even had my own design firm.

I like to think my career has been, in part, an ethnography of how organisations view and use design. There are obviously a great many differences I’ve observed, but there are some surprising similarities too. One of the most startling to me is how often I’ve seen insights, and the potential they embody, killed. Even in design agencies.

What even is an insight?

As a design strategist, insights are the lifeblood of my work. But in most of the organisations I’ve worked in they’ve been pretty misunderstood. I used to muse with an old colleague that insights gave us a feeling of euphoria, a real high. By comparison, the “insights” presented by many organisations leave me cold.

That’s because most organisations have a largely superficial understanding of research, and tend to conflate interesting information with insight. The fact that an NPS score has increased is not an insight; it’s a fact. The observation that our population is aging, and will result in longer working ages and new product and service opportunities, is not an insight; it’s a finding. An insight tells you why something is or isn’t happening, and what that means for your organisation. It sparks ideas; inspiring and directing new opportunities. To quote Gary Klein, the renowned cognitive psychologist who has studied insights in some detail, insights are:

“Unexpected discoveries about how things work and how to make them work better. Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive and more useful.”

Insights have a transformative effect. They make us see the world differently to how we looked at it before. An insight can make us reframe our goals and inspire us to act on them in ways that were often unimaginable before we had it. The key characteristic of an insight then, is that it’s disruptive.

Insight traps

Insights can have great value to an organisation, but all too often I see them being killed before they are given the chance to work their magic. The very nature of insights makes them troublesome for organisations and their employees, who find it difficult to reconcile their disruptive power with a business culture that prizes predictability, conformity and consistent product delivery. Insights therefore get trapped, both by people, and by organisational culture and systems. In this article, I will be examining the people traps that insights regularly fall victim to.

The people trap

Human interpretation of information and data is crucial to the formation of insights, however this is an imperfect process. In his research, Gary Klein examined real-world occurrences of insights in which two people were given the same data and information. One arrived at an insight, and the other did not. Even with the right information, there is no guarantee that a person will arrive at an insight — and no guarantee that they’ll act on it, if they do.

Klein’s research allowed him to identify six factors that prevent people from arriving at insights. Here’s an overview of those six people traps, and how they can affect the use of insights in business:

Being gripped by flawed beliefs

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We all have beliefs about how things work and why. Occasionally, those beliefs may not be accurate. For an insight to be reached, we must abandon the flawed beliefs that we hold. Sometimes those beliefs are strong, especially when they’re reinforced by our culture and society at large, and are therefore difficult for us to let go of.

Holding on to our flawed beliefs prevents us from seeing alternative explanations for why and how things happen. The more central a belief is for us, the harder it is to abandon. A classic example of this is the persecution of the scientist and astronomer Galileo, who was convicted as a heretic for his support of heliocentrism. Using information gathered from other astronomers and from his own observations, Galileo formed the insight that the earth orbits the sun. The strongly held belief at the time was that the earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo’s theory contradicted this, making it almost impossible for others to accept it and resulting in his condemnation. The Enlightenment eventually helped us to see the truth in Galileo’s work, and gave us a much more objective worldview anchored in the ‘scientific method’.

Despite our desire to be objective, flawed beliefs still abound. Typically when we’re gripped by flawed beliefs we suffer from what is known as confirmation bias: we ignore or explain away data and information that doesn’t support our beliefs, or we misinterpret or distort evidence to prevent anomalies from being noticeable. We find it very difficult to be objective about data and information that challenges our view of how something works, just as Galileo’s detractors did.

Lack of relevant experience

In order to understand whether a piece of data or information is important, we first need the relevant experience and interests to guide our interpretation. It isn’t enough to simply have relevant domain knowledge though; arriving at an insight is all about how you apply that domain knowledge and use it to attune your attention to the things that matter the most.

Watson and Crick, the scientists that discovered the structure of DNA, are a great example of this. Crick had a background in physics, X-ray diffraction methods, proteins and gene function. Watson had a background in biology, bacterial viruses and bacterial genetics, which often meant he was building physical models. Most of the other scientists trying to discover the molecular structure of DNA were relying upon a single domain of expertise — including Rosalind Franklin, who, like Crick, was an expert in X-ray diffraction methods.

While Franklin relied solely on her expertise in X-ray diffraction methods, Watson and Crick were able to combine their experience and interests and it was this that enabled them to reveal the structure of DNA. Using Crick’s expertise in deciphering X-rays and Watson’s experience of model building, they were able to develop a three dimensional representation of DNA that Franklin’s expertise alone could not have achieved. Watson and Crick’s representation of the structure of DNA took into account the various distances and angles of constituent parts that Franklin, with her lack of relevant expertise and interest, had not focussed on.

Passive stance

Many of us, in our everyday lives, focus on only doing what’s needed to get a job done. There is little space for questioning or imagining, and challenging conventional wisdom by speculating about what something might mean often feels like it might get us in trouble. We therefore default to a passive way of looking at the world, which is often reinforced by a workplace culture that rewards this way of thinking and doing.

This passive stance is a sure fire way to kill insights, the formation of which require a sceptical and speculative mindset. We need to question “What might that mean in this context versus that context?”, or “What might be possible if I do this instead of that?”. Without this inquisitive mindset, we are simply unable to interpret information in front of us and arrive at an insight.

Concrete reasoning

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Our style of reasoning is a fairly fixed aspect of our personalities. Some people feel comfortable speculating and playfully exploring data and information, while others prefer to view data and information in a literal, deductive manner.

People with this second, more concrete reasoning style usually don’t like speculating and find playful reasoning time-wasting and even immature. Their pursuit of correctness means they’re only interested in facts, rather than imaginative ideas that might get them to a deeper truth. The way they process data and information usually prevents them from being able to get to the insights that come naturally to people with speculative and playful reasoning styles. Because our reasoning styles are so deeply rooted in our personalities, this is not usually an obstacle that can be overcome with practice or experience. People with logical, concrete reasoning styles are often better suited to other areas of business, rather those that require a great deal of speculative reasoning.

Goal fixation

When we begin a project, we usually already have an idea of what we want the end point to be — there is a goal in mind.

Very often we become resistant to the idea of changing these goals, and will miss or ignore important insights to the detriment of the eventual success of the project. By becoming too fixated on a goal, we can miss the opportunity to create a more innovative solution that couldn’t have been imagined at the outset of the project.

Blockbuster and Netflix are great examples of this people trap. Blockbuster had over 9,000 stores in the US in the early 2000s, with business goals and revenue targets tied to this bricks and mortar retail approach. At around the same time, fledgling company Netflix was sending DVDs by post to subscribers, rather than renting through stores. Netflix were struggling as a business and began looking at new ideas to help them remain viable. As a result, they were open to insights and new ideas.

The rise of Napster and other online peer-to-peer file sharing services were disrupting the music industry at the time. Netflix recognised that there was a market for streaming films and TV shows, but didn’t have the capital to realise the concept themselves. They approached Blockbuster with an offer to sell the business to them for $50million. Blockbuster, fixated on their goal of growing their business through a traditional retail model, were unable to see the opportunity and therefore declined Netflix’s pitch.

Netflix eventually managed to raise the funds to make their streaming idea a success. In the years that followed, Blockbuster lost $1.1 billion in value. They closed their last US store in 2013. As of 2016, Netflix was worth over $40 billion.

Subconscious hostility to insight & innovation

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If asked outright, most people would agree that insight and innovation are positive things that should be encouraged within organisations. So why are they being killed?

Researchers at Cornell University have been studying the phenomena of people rejecting insights and creative ideas whilst still espousing the value of creativity, and have identified a powerful unconscious bias that explains this paradox.

Businesses tend to prize predictability and efficiency as a way of ensuring their commercial success. The more established they are, the more conservative they tend to be when it comes to risk-taking. Employees, therefore, are primed by this organisational culture to minimise uncertainty wherever possible.

Cornell researchers looked at the effect of this motivation on how we respond to insights and creative ideas. They ran a series of implicit association tests, in which people had to categorise as either good or bad a set of objects that were either creative or practical. When they analysed the reaction times, they discovered it was much more challenging for people to categorise the creative objects as good or bad than it was the practical ones.

The study also looked at how people evaluated insights and creative ideas relative to practical ones, and found that people associate creative ideas with uncertainty — especially when they are primed to consider ways of reducing uncertainty. The study highlights the tendency of people to automatically assume that insights and creative ideas aren’t reliable or practical, therefore encouraging an association of these ideas with failure.

Given that most employees seek to minimise uncertainty, it’s unsurprising that they exhibit an unconscious negative bias toward creative ideas. This unconscious bias does not necessarily mean that they are totally closed to new ideas, but what it does mean is that the ideas that they are most receptive to typically fit existing organisational practices that maintain predictability. Disruptive insights and ideas that are likely to lead to radical ‘breakthrough’ innovations are dismissed as too risky.

Overcoming people traps

These people traps aren’t easy to tackle. Many of them are the result of unalterable personality traits, or are influenced by deeply rooted beliefs that we may not even be aware of. There are, however, some strategies that you can adopt to minimise the risk of potentially valuable insights falling victim to people traps within your organisation.

Firstly, consider the makeup of your project teams. People with a diversity of experiences and interests are better equipped to interpret data and information than an individual, or group of similar individuals, all with the same kind of expertise and experience. The natural tensions created by such a diversity will push the group to look at data and information from multiple perspectives, and significantly increases the likelihood that they will arrive at valuable insights.

You should also ensure project team members are comfortable with speculative and playful thinking. If you have just one team member with a concrete reasoning style the explorative dynamic required to arrive at insights will be very challenging to achieve.

Projects should also be approached with an open-mind. Setting goals in order to secure funding internally is often unavoidable, but getting fixated on that goal doesn’t have to be. Make the time and space to reflect on what you’re doing as a team. Use the insights you’ve generated to explore whether or not there are more valuable goals to pursue. Where there are, use these insights to make the case for a pivot.

Overcoming people traps is just the start. In the next article in this series I’ll be looking at organisational traps, and what you can do to address these.

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Read the next article in the series, on how insights are caged by organisational culture.