OPINION1 June 2020

In praise of curiosity and timeout

Innovations Opinion

Curiosity and taking time out are sometimes overlooked, but are especially important for researchers in times of change. Sam Knowles offers some practical tips for thinking curiously.

As the world starts to adjust to what living with coronavirus really means, we have never needed insight and the transformational power of insightful thinking more. Insight is the superpower that drives innovation, and the human capacity for innovation is what gets us out of holes and ensures we evolve and survive. This is true whether we work in businesses or charities, universities or governments. 

In the insight industry, we sometimes take our superpower a little bit too lightly, assuming others know what insight is. How we get to insights and what we recommend those we advise should do with them may be each practitioner’s secret sauce. But to leave our key term undefined and open to misinterpretation allows some to peddle data, analytics, or dashboard screenshots as insights.

For me, insight is best defined as a profound and useful understanding of a person, a thing, a situation, or an issue; a nugget of data-driven, evidence-based certainty that inspires action. Insights help us understand and think about things differently, more completely, with – to be circular – more insight. It’s their very usefulness – their ability to move us from what data means (“So what?”) to what we can do as a result (“Now what?”) – that separates insights from casual observations.

There are two essential but often-overlooked components of insightful thinking that underpin everyone’s capacity for insight: curiosity and timeout.

Curiouser and curiouser

Being curious about human motivation and behaviour is a sine qua non for practitioners of insight. But I don’t mean curiosity for this week’s brief or next quarter’s corporate reputation report. I’m talking about a profound, almost compulsive desire to find the undertones of why about everything.

The reason curiosity matters so much is that insights come when the most powerful supercomputer on the planet – the one that sits between your ears – does its uniquely human creative thing and puts already-acquired data together with other information and makes something new.

Vilfredo Pareto, who noted the connection between 80% and 20%, defined an idea as “nothing more or less than a combination of old elements”. To enable your brain to do its unique, recombinatorial thing, you need to feed the beast.

Five ways to flex your curiosity muscles

  1. Talk to people – colleagues, experts, the completely naïve. Diverse opinions generate more interesting, unexpected combinations of old + old. Some might even be new
  2. Make friends with R&D, often the gatekeepers to customers’ most profound motivations
  3. Consume and perform comedy. One of the lynchpins of humour is the switcheroo, when performers subvert expectations and conclude precisely what the audience didn’t expect
  4. Travel – even if, for now, just virtually. Go to Zoom conferences and Ted talks, experience diverse cultures – ideas, food, architecture. Diversity creates, homogeneity stifles
  5. Do the right things at the right time of day. First thing is better for writing than email, while insightful thinking flourishes after the post-lunch slump. Dan Pink’s When explains more.

Taking time out

Having filled your mind with all kinds of stimulus, as the fuel to crack an insight, step away from the challenge at hand. To enable your subconscious mind to do its brilliant, recombinatorial thing, it needs to be left alone.

Shuffling, categorising, and sorting the fruits of your curiosity on a particular topic demand that you think about something else – and ideally nothing at all. That gives the subconscious time to mix and match, doodle in margins, and serve up possible solutions for conscious inspection.

Five top tips for timeout

  1. Take some exercise. By moving, fast or slow, alone or in a team, in parks and on pavements or in the sea, you minimise distractions because you’re focused on running or swimming
  2. Don’t go to work. Skip that Zoom. Have a duvet day. Timeout isn’t bunking off or procrastination. It’s essential for solving insight problems
  3. Do boring tasks with beginnings, middles, and ends. I favour washing up, ironing, and mowing – banal tasks that distract conscious attention
  4. Subvert the rules of meetings. Make them short or standing-up. Provide no biscuits – or a banquet. Turn a workshop into a walkshop
  5. Get somewhere big – a park, rolling hills or mountains, outside. Being somewhere big has the effect of slowing down time and allows you to process more data more quickly.

Thoughtful as we are as a species, we rarely make time to get metacognitive and think about thinking. In part this is a consequence of our always-on world. It’s also because the mechanics of thinking are so resistant to the processes of thought. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman says: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it, but they prefer not to.” But with a little conscious reflection – and building both curiosity and timeout into your daily routine – you’ll find that you can make yourself more insightful.

Sam Knowles is founder and managing director at Insight Agents

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