OPINION22 June 2023

Out of the office, out of insight?

Behavioural science Covid-19 Opinion People

Anthony Tasgal explores the role of the office in organisational culture, insight generation and how we share stories, anecdotes, reactions and ideas.


In my previous piece in Research Live, coinciding with the launch of my new work The Insight Book, I argued that the research industry needs to take a long hard look at itself if it thinks that insights will emerge unbidden if we merely stare long and longingly enough at stacks of data, especially in this world that I like to call DRIP: data-rich, insight-poor.

I tentatively gave some recommendations for how as individuals, ‘seekers of insight’ can develop the characteristics that will help them make the creative leap necessary to qualify as an ‘actionable insight’.

But towards the end of the piece, I touched on a topic explored in the book, about developing what I call ‘insightment’, a culture that prizes and generates insight across a team, or an entire company culture. I’d like to propose some principles at a corporate and cultural level to increase the likelihood of creating  this ‘insightment’.

But first, what are the challenges in creating an endemic and lasting culture of insight? Insight depends on the ability for our brains — as individuals and as teams — to generate collisions and combinations, so that new connections are forged, which are the lifeblood of insight.

Collisions and combinations
In the book I cite a plethora of scientists who have long attested to the effectiveness of allowing the brain to serendipitously build new wholes from disparate parts. Here’s a couple of examples: 

Abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another … the most unheard-of combinations of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy.” American psychologist William James.

“Ideas rose in crowds. I felt them collide until pairs interlocked … making a stable combination.” French mathematician, Henri Poincaré.

I say this partly to counteract a prevailing tendency (especially in the data and research world) that  immersion — finding out lots of stuff about the one topic in hand — is by itself a guarantee of illumination. From these fortuitous collisions emerge the seeds of something special. Inspiration requires not just unconscious serendipity and chance: it needs constantly topping up. 

Out of Office?
This topping up can take place not only at the personal level, it can also be germinated and disseminated through and across the culture of an organisation. The provision of ESIs, those wonderful ‘external serendipitous influences’ that excite and re-frame the contents of our unconscious, is for me a key component for creating a culture of insightment that allows our brains to wander beyond the usual pathways.

In his book, People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business, and What it Tells Us About the Future of Work, Harvard and MIT researcher Ben Waber argues (with data) that serendipitous interactions are incredibly important for making random connections that pay off down the road at a collective level.

Waber’s research shows that workers’ most productive time occurs when they collaborate and interact with each other. This means getting up and walking around, spending time in the coffee area, eating lunch with colleagues, jumping into chat sessions and becoming heavily involved in the social life of the workplace.

When I started writing my book, the Covid-19 pandemic had already begun to drastically re-model the work landscape. A generation was emerging for whom one day a week in the office felt like the new norm.

While I fully accept that working from home has been a blessing for many — with less time wasted commuting, more time with family, more productivity and suiting different lifestyles — I do think that the law of unintended consequences also has something to say about the matter at the corporate/collective level.

Space for Insight?
Because, in terms of developing a culture of insightment in organisations, I fervently believe we need to seek ways of getting (nudging?) people back into spaces where they can escape solitary Zoom confinement and bump into each other: in communal areas, the kitchen or the lift where we can all share stories, anecdotes, reactions and ideas.

Maybe it will never be five days a week for most, but if insightment is to be ingrained then companies in the insight business need more people to spend more time generating these collisions and combinations.

As a devout member of the behavioural economics tribe (if they’re not called Kahnemaniacs they should be), I know the power of context in behaviour change and persuasion.

To borrow Jonathan Haidt’s elegant analogy, if the elephant is the animal, emotional System 1, and the rider is System 2 thinking they are in control, the path is the power of the context in guiding new behaviour. This will provide a culture and where ideas can collide and create the sort of unexpected combinatorial serendipity I am advocating.

Insight-oriented companies: it’s not just up to individual employees. Over to you to build paths and contexts for insightment. 

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