A recent post on Langdon Morris’ Permanent Innovation site reflects on “The Nature of Insight.” Langdon concludes saying, “Insight is often instanteous [sic]; our attempts to communicate its nature necessarily take much longer.” At first blush, this statement seems innocuous; yet, it has been niggling at me. The reason that this statement bothers me is that it confuses the nature of the insight with the result of insight and in so doing helps perpetuate a harmful innovation myth.
In the article, the moment of insight—that time when one’s understanding and vision crystallize—is framed as the starting point of a process which continues with the purposeful articulation of the understanding that has been achieved through the insight. Certainly, we have all experienced what is described. That momentary flood of understanding which then requires a much longer time to capture and communicate. But, the described moment of insight is not the beginning. It is more properly the climax of a process that has been in motion for some time.
The flash of innovation is the culmination of a process where conceptual connections are made. Who has not seen the look that comes over one’s face when they see the solution before them formed by insight? It is a very powerful experience whether you are experiencing the insight yourself or seeing someone else have the experience.
Recently, I was sitting with a very senior engineer and highly accomplished inventor. He was looking at a problem that another division of his company had been struggling with for the past two years. As he started to examine the problem, he applied structured innovation techniques to identify specifically relevant information about the product system he was examining. When the tool he was using identified a particular aspect of the system, his eyes widened. That moment of insight was upon him. In that moment, the insight left him with a solution path.
But, the moment of solution was decades in the creation. He had leveraged vast quantities of information and captured experience to identify the knowledge that was the essential catalyst for his flash of insight. Without the ability to leverage collective knowledge and wisdom, he would never have been able to make the connections that were the basis of his insight. This is at the crux of debunking the myth of innovation.
Innovations are rarely, if ever, without an antecedent. This is a very important point for organizations wishing to foster an efficient environment for repeatable innovation. Its importance lies in the implication that you can improve the quality and quantity of innovations if you can harness the right actionable knowledge and create the environment to support the information confluence needed for such insight events.
[Photo Credit: Jeff Hire]