OPINION27 April 2023

Connections and collisions: How creativity can absorb insight

Behavioural science Opinion Trends UK

Until we accept that insight is part of the creative domain and should be treated as such, we will continue to have unrealistic expectations of how to achieve it, argues Anthony Tasgal.

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Where to start? We could begin by scrambling around in the semantic undergrowth, trying to dredge out and then agree on a common definition of insight. Or how about looking at some case studies and trying to extract some common themes from them?

Yes, but let me try another angle here and one that is a tad polemically provocative for those toiling at the coalface of insight-mining, especially the research industry.

As someone who has spent much of their professional life as an ad agency planner trying to pan for insights (even before that’s what they were called) to help clients re-frame their brands, develop new campaign ideas or to assist the agency in winning pitches, I’ve long come to the conclusion that there has been a takeover and colonisation which we need to acknowledge and redress.

To wit, the people in charge of data (researchers, analysts) transformed overnight into the de facto guardians of and searchers after insight (maybe I’ve watched too many movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise).

It’s as if we woke up one day and all the research managers had magically become “insight managers”, a term which I find rather unsatisfactory in itself: if there’s one thing you can’t do with insight it’s manage it. Other than adding a significant something to their salaries, I am not convinced this was of much benefit to those who needed to actually put those insights into practice.

The Resolution 
Let’s start by untying the knot between data and insight. It is not that insight never requires or depends on data, but rather we mustn’t assume that data is a sine qua non of insight: that the only path to insight salvation lies in having terabytes of data, blizzards of charts, graphs and PPTs.

Data in is no guarantee of insight out. I refuse to accept that only those armed to the teeth with data are capable of making the creative leap that is at the heart of insight. Data is not the only or best way of finding ideas and can indeed often be a barrier to insight, the so-called ‘burden of knowledge’ whereby too much inherited knowledge can create and reinforce compartments and conventions which end up stubbornly resisting innovation.

Until we accept that insight is part of the creative domain and should be treated as such, we will continue to have unrealistic expectations of what it is and how to achieve it.

The Remedy
Firstly, part of my solution is to reframe how we see insight: as a feeling more than a thing. The sense of, as scientist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov put it, “that’s funny”: a reaction of surprise, a re-framing and (going back to its etymology) an “in” to “seeing” something new that a client/end-user/planner can react to and implement (call it actionability, if you feel so inclined).

Secondly, as I like to put it, information is to be collected but insight is to be connected. One of the key creative insights on insight is that in behavioural economics/Kahnemanian terms, we must feed not just rational, factual and linear System 2 but the free-wheeling, unconscious, pattern-seeking System 1.

Finally, I said insight can’t be managed: that’s because it relies on feeding System 1 and relying on serendipity to do its work powerfully and mysteriously. But we can do that by looking at both an individual and corporate-cultural level.

So, let me finish with a few characteristics for a seeker of insight. They should be what Saul Bellow called a “first-class noticer”, someone who combines wit (in both senses) with an instinct for storytelling, who is not afraid to wander and is risk-prone.

And at the company level we can cultivate insight at the team level if we find ways to engender serendipity, combination and collisions: one example being by creating previously unapplied detail folders as individuals and teams, which can help channel unexpected ideas and observations which can translate into insight when cross-fertilised. 

More topically, that’s why I recommend that companies labouring in the fields of data, research and strategy should encourage their staff to come into the office for at least three days a week. This is not mere old-fashioned traditionalism, and that sound may well be the death-knell of the five-day week, but if we want to promote serendipitous collisions and combinations that will build the new connections at a personal and collective level, that are the precursor of insight, then we need more people to be in the office kitchen, the lift or between offices more often.

That, I hope and believe, will give us the best possible chance of getting from data to tada.

Anthony Tasgal is a trainer, author, speaker and strategist. His fifth book, The Insight Book, is out now.