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Zen and the Art of Insight Generation

It’s not even really up for debate. “Insight” is one of the things we value most in the world of creative problem solving. Despite its value, we tend to throw the term around pretty loosely in creative strategy circles. We talk about insight as though we agree on what the word actually means. And we tend to talk about insights as things that will emerge, predictably, out of research.

“We do the research and that’s where insights come from. Simple, right?”

But what is insight?

in|sight  / ˈɪnsʌɪt

1. the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something: his mind soared to previously unattainable heights of insight

2. an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, complex situation or problem: and with this insight, he was able to understand what she had meant by her letter

But how do we actually cultivate this capacity or learn how to identify insights? How can we tell the difference between a mere morsel of information and something that is truly … insightful? And why, for something that is so important, does it seem that there isn’t any agreed-upon way to do these things?

Although my first inclination is to say that ‘insight’ isn’t a science, there has been a ton of research done on the subject – from how insight generation can be supported to methods you can use to encourage its emergence.

But this post is not about that research.

Instead, this post is a reflection on the experiences I’ve had as an insight hunter and a few patterns that I’ve noticed along the way.

As a longtime meditation practitioner, I would say that there is something similar between uncovering insight in a contemplative practice and how insights reveal themselves in a creative setting. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that I like using metaphors to structure my thinking, even if they’re imperfect.

Today I’m going to use some common meditation guidelines as a metaphorical framework for how we can approach creative insight generation. It’s not exactly a how-to (or, by any means, a guide to meditation) but more a series of things I’ve noticed that can nurture your ability to identify insights and put them to good use.

Get quiet and make some space
I’m not suggesting that you assume the lotus position in the brainstorm room but it is important to free up some mental space for whatever you’re working on. Trying to work on multiple projects at once for the sake of efficiency usually has the opposite of the intended effect.

It can be difficult to ensure that the projects you work on are given a sufficient timeline to let you clear mental clutter from the last project you were working on. Although this is often outside of your control from a process perspective, try to build in some buffer zones between meetings or dedicate specific days of the week to specific projects. Walk into kickoff meetings with more questions than answers and lots of room for listening. And try to keep your preconceptions to a minimum (easier said than done, as any meditator will tell you).

Be honest about what you’re looking at
It could be argued that the goal of meditation is to see things as they really are. Likewise, the goal of your research and kickoff phase is to really see the situation you’re in. To find the insight that will guide your creative effort. It’s difficult to know the difference between the data showing you something and the data showing you what you want to see. Part of the reason we build the jobs-to-be-done framework into our process is that by its nature it only wants to know what happened. Unlike other primary research methods, it’s not interested in how a participant reports on a solution, it wants to know about the events and problems that led them to a decision. It’s intensely curious.

Since the rest of your peripheral research (into the product, the industry and culture) is going to be biased by the opinions and worldviews of you and your team, it’s good to have a foundation of data that has nothing to do with what you think.

That said, it would be a mistake to assume that the jobs-to-be-done approach is purely rational, linear and only interested in the facts. On the contrary, part of the importance of clearing away our assumptions is to be able to identify the parts of people’s stories that are emotionally driven or activated. Much like contemplative practice, this is where the interesting stuff is.

Don’t get hung up on anything too early
Before we can move ahead in our meditation practice, we need to be able to identify what arises, acknowledge it and move along.

When we see something that looks like it might be an insight, it can be tempting to make it meaningful because it is the first thing to appear. This is helpful to be aware of when we’re trying to make sense out of a mountain of research. It’s a good idea to note what stands out to you as you make your way through the chaos but try not to figure everything out as you identify these things. Just flag it and set it aside until you’re ready to look at the nuggets together.

In other words, be patient.

Focus and make connections
At the end of a meditation session, it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect and to jot down anything interesting about your experience. Likewise, when your research gathering phase is coming to a close and you’ve managed to clear up some space again in your mind, it’s time to take a closer look. What is interesting about what you have identified? What is causing the phenomenon? What implications does it have? Is it still interesting now that you’ve had a chance to look at it more closely? Is it related to any of the other items you’ve set aside? How?

It might make you a bit uncomfortable
This is probably the area of ‘insight protocol’ (no such thing) that gets really hard to turn into a set of instructions. It relies on having done the previous steps properly, most importantly, being honest about the data you’re looking at and making sure you’re not just selecting interesting pieces of research that back up what you already think you know. Instead, I believe that the most interesting pieces of information are the ones that make you squirm a little bit. If you’ve uncovered an ‘insight’ that feels too easy or convenient, you might want to go back and take another look. This might be the time to try to reframe your problem, that is, look at it from another perspective or try inverting your assumptions.

Find a way to put it into action
Much like coming to realize that your state of mind is a product of where you put your attention for most of the day, uncovering a meaningful insight in your work should have the suggestion of a solution inside of it.

Sometimes this means that it instantly solves a problem and other times an insight can nudge you down the road of further exploration. It’s just that now, you have a better sense of why you’re travelling in that direction. Or if the solution isn’t obvious, something to ask yourself might be, “How can this help anyone?” or “Does this open up new ways to solve a problem?”

Being passionate about understanding and helping people will help you connect problems and solutions. In a creative problem-solving setting, finding ‘insight’ basically means finding a key to solving a problem that exists.

Continue with diligence
It is called meditation ‘practice’ for a reason. It is meant to be something you do every day or at least on a regular basis for it to be beneficial. It is a very simple set of instructions that are hard to follow every day. It’s hard because you have to find the time to make the space and be diligent about continuing to follow the instructions even when you would rather not. Likewise, in a creative problem-solving environment, it can be difficult to resist having all the answers and finding a shortcut.

For everything else, there is a bootcamp. A cross-fit approach to success. For insight, you need space, patience and lots of practice.

Thank you to comics artist Dave Coverly for the image. For more Zen (and other) humour, check out his work here.