As the world moves tentatively out of lockdown and into to a new and sometimes unfamiliar version of its former self, all different types of organisation are faced with a common imperative. To recover, stabilise, and start to grow again post-pandemic, they’re going to need to change. And unlike the world before COVID-19, innovation can’t afford to move at cautious, evolutionary pace, gradually improving on what came before. To compete and find their place in the new world order, organisations need to adapt and pivot at pace. The rulebook of innovation has been ripped up, and individuals and businesses, nations and the planet urgently need to fast-track innovation. In extraordinary times, the question is not “If” or “When?” but “How?”
Insight is best defined as “a profound and useful understanding of a person, topic, or issue”. Insights are nuggets of evidence-based certainty that enable us to take informed action. Insight is also the superpower that drives innovation. The trouble is, like many abstract, cognitive constructs, insight is poorly understood. At a time when we’ve never needed innovation more, what’s worse is that most people don’t know or have a model of how to be insightful. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman said: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it, but they prefer not to.” But worry not. Help is at hand.
I – or perhaps the twin goddesses of History and Fate – chose to publish my new book on insightful, innovative thinking in the middle of the first global pandemic in the age of globalisation. How To Be Insightful is not yet three weeks old, but it’s already started to shake its booty. The book sets out a model of insightful thinking that I believe can play a small but important part in kick-starting the much-needed 2020s’ innovation revolution. Drawing on the history, psychology, and neuroscience of insight, the STEP Prism of Insight establishes a blueprint for more reliable, productive, and insightful thinking in a world in need of a reassuring but directive hand on its shoulder.
Central to my model is curiosity (what I call Sweat), and the need for innovators to gorge on a broad diversity of stimulus and inputs, providing the fuel for the subconscious mind to recombine old + old to make something new. Just like the minds behind Tesla, Dollar Shave Club, and MasterClass. Just like the creative thinkers who developed Peloton, Meituan Dianping, and Winc. As innovative thinkers from Oscar Wilde to Steve Jobs via Picasso are all said to have said, “Genius steals”. And in the words of Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto – father of the 80/20 rule: “An idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements.”
Curiosity matters to provide the fuel you need for innovation. But in the process of insight development, timeout matters perhaps even more.
That’s right, timeout. Time actively spent not consciously thinking about the innovation you’re trying to crack. For insight problems – the key to unlocking innovations – aren’t like analytical problems. They don’t respect hard work or the application of algorithms that deliver reliable and predictable outcomes. In place of the sustained application of conscious processing, insight problems demand the focused application of subconscious processing. To get to “the why behind the what”, you need to distract your conscious mind from the insight challenges you face and allow your subconscious to do its recombinatorial best.
As we all respond to the innovation imperative in the wake of coronavirus, leaders should build timeout into the working day, add it to project timelines, and even create new timeout timesheet codes. They should encourage their teams to block time in the diary when they do something other than work or try to force out an innovation. For those able to work from home during lockdown, there’s been no problem with remote workers turning up and putting in a shift. Far from it. If anything, leaders face a challenge getting their teams not to work. And that – for the sake of the innovations they so critically need – is exactly what they should encourage now.
For many, one silver lining to the banks of clouds of lockdown has been the discovery of new and diverting ways of spending time, from gardening to running home schools, from sourdough to home hairdressing. In more normal times, I would often champion the benefits of washing up, ironing, and mowing the lawn. Immersive tasks with a beginning, middle, and an end that end up with an accomplishment that’s often delivered relatively mindlessly. Classic timeout behaviour.
As we move to the next phase of the pandemic and look to showcase our resourcefulness, I’m confident that taking timeout more often will help more of us have the insights necessary to unlock the innovations all of our organisations need to adapt at pace. We should all take timeout seriously – of course to avoid burnout, but even more importantly to up the quotient of insights we all have.
Timeout truly is the way to unleash your inner Archimedes.
LISTEN! My co-hosts of the Small Data Forum podcast quizzed me on insightful thinking in this latest, meet-the-author special episode, titled “A very curious mind indeed”.
REGISTER! I’m giving a Top Talk for the APG – Account Planning Group – on “The history, psychology, and neuroscience of insight” on 25 June.
READ! “In praise of curiosity and timeout” on the blog roll of the Market Research Society.
LEARN! Sign-up for my new course “Innovation in the wake of coronavirus” being run with the Market Research Society.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.