As I mentioned in my previous post [Creative Insights Boost Performance], managers improve their peoples’ performance by reducing errors, but just as important is encouraging creative insights.

“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights.” ~ Gary A. Klein, PhD, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (Public Affairs, First Trade Paper Edition, 2013)

Research into how the brain solves problems and generates “aha” moments has helped us understand the best ways to create insights.

British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a four-stage process in his 1926 book, The Art of Thought. He asserted that creative solutions appear sequentially:

Preparation => Incubation => Illumination => Implementation

Social scientists accepted and promoted this model for more than a century. Psychology professors John Kounios and Mark Beeman tweaked the formula in The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain (Random House, 2015):

Immersion => Impasse => Diversion => Insight

This is the classic way to think about insight, they maintain, although there are several elaborations and variants. We must step back and painstakingly observe a problem (immersion), examine perspectives and context, reinterpret the familiar, become aware of unfamiliar and unseen relationships, and question assumptions and biases.

If you reach an impasse, stop seeking answers. Seek a change of scenery, and give your brain a rest (diversion). Your subconscious will continue to make remote associations and connect ideas during an incubation period. Insights will materialize, accompanied by feelings of certainty and an emotional thrill.

How Insights Differ from Intuitions

Intuitive thinking and creative insights can lead to breakthrough ideas, but they’re two different animals. Intuition is the use of patterns already learned; insight is the discovery of new patterns.

As a leader, you deal with a tremendous amount of data. It can be useful when appropriately analyzed, but in some cases may prove overwhelming and misleading. Dr. Klein offers several thoughts on how we process this data:

  • When we receive a new piece of information, it joins the information we already have. This sets the stage for discovery.
  • We use stories (narratives) to frame and organize the details.
  • Insights shift us toward a new story: a set of beliefs that are more accurate, comprehensive and useful.
  • Our insights change how we understand, act, see, feel and desire.
  • Compared with routine problem-solving, insights aren’t conscious or deliberate.

Most importantly, insights change how we act, what we do next, and what we need to validate new ideas.