Insight and How To Get Some

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,

When do you do your thinking? If you're like me, principally when you're addressing a real problem. When do you get your insights? Mine generally come when I'm trying to solve a problem I haven't faced before, don't have a ready answer for, and don't know a formula or recipe or roadmap to employ in the process.
    I think of insights as those nuggets of knowledge that are the shortcuts in our abilities to understand things clearly. They're like x-ray vision - they let us look at something and all the extraneous information just melts away; leaving only the essence that clearly explains what we are focused upon. Lean knowledge. And the best part is that most insights seem to stem from mental patterns so basic that they have broad applicability - knowledge patterns that are reusable under many seemingly different circumstances.
    Nice stuff if you can get it. Genius seems to have a lot of it - that's how they make simple sense out of the things that baffle the rest of us. How do I get me some?
    It's obvious we don't get it in school or we'd all have a lot more.
    Why is this so important? The knowledge brought to bear on the job, whatever the job, determines how well it is done. And that knowledge, whatever it is, is getting obsolete faster and faster. So the manipulation and renewal of knowledge is a cornerstone of viability today - whether you're a company or a person.
    The stuff of both personal and corporate core competency is knowledge, the leveragable stuff of knowledge is insight, and insight is possessed by people. So companies want to know how they can get more insightful people - either those who come with a storehouse of insights or those capable of developing them as needed.
    Dan Seligman (Fortune, Jan 13, 1997) suggests that intelligence is the attribute to look for, no matter what the job position or responsibility. "In jobs all across the skills spectrum, highest [IQ] test scores are associated with shorter training times, greater productivity, and lower turnover rates". Every job has an ideal IQ range, he says, and companies should attempt to fill those positions with people in the upper, rather than the lower, end of the range. He reminds us that Microsoft hires with this in mind: "promoting worker intelligence as a business strategy".
    A study at Bell Labs disagrees. Kelly & Caplan in the Jul-Aug '93 Harvard Business Review showed that among engineers a higher IQ didn't help - initiative and networks counted the most for productivity, and seven more "strategies" played important roles as well. Initiative: instead of simply identifying a problem, fix it. Networks: instead of simply asking others for help when stumped, cultivate respect among a group that trades in knowledge.
    Interesting concept, this trading in knowledge. A source of indirect insight that allows a person to get beyond the roadblocker problems. It taps into many minds. It isn't teaming in the sense that we employ that term, yet it makes use of a team in the sense that we employ that term - it taps the knowledge of others who are willing to entertain your problem and provide a solution - or at least some ideas that could help enlighten your path to a solution.
    After a certain age we begin to value experience over intelligence and a quick mind. Why? Because experience is a collection of ready-to-use insights indistinguishable from intelligence. Mere intelligence, on the other hand, must create an insight on-the-spot in order to solve the same problem equally well. Sometimes it can; but if you could find a way to increase your own pool of insightful patterns you would function at a seemingly "smarter" level. And if you could help others increase their collections of insights you would have about you a more effective group of people.
    The point: it doesn't matter how the insight patterns get there (in your head), it only matters that you have them.
    Remember the old plumber's justification for his high price for five masterful minutes of work: "$50 for whacking the pipe, $5,000 for knowing where to whack it". The plumber's knowledge might fit into one of three categories:
    1) someone showed him where to whack it,
    2) he just "knew" where to whack it, or
    3) he understood why to whack it there.
    Category one is the least leverageable kind of knowledge (maybe it's only information masquerading as knowledge) and the most prevalent form - a set of circumstances repeats itself and you can solve the problem because you've seen that one before. This kind is built over many years of exposure to working situations and is the basis of craftsmanship maturation as well as most formal education. "Here are some tools - I'll
show you how to use them. Here are some applications, I'll show you how to approach them. Now go out into the world and use this information, and if you run into something different, seek advice from someone wiser".
    Where do these wiser people come from?
    Category two is the least predictable but generally the most prevalent form of insightful (rather than rote) knowledge. We exhibit genuine useful insight into the way some things work but we can't explain it, we just apply it. X-ray vision. We all employ this form of insight to different degrees every day in the course of just living. Those we call talented often exhibit this unconscious insight in their area of expertise.
    Category three is the most valuable form of insightful knowledge because it is transferable. It has higher leverage than that which is unconsciously exercised by a single person with a gift. Remember we're talking insight here, we're not talking about an application of formulas and process that cranks out an answer. We're talking about people who come up with an answer in the absence of formula, and then show us how to do it too. In essence they have given us a new mental pattern that we use thereafter to filter all the things we see, along with any other such patterns in our mental library.
    I don't really think it's quite that simple. Installing a new insightful pattern needs a receptive mind - one that is struggling with a problem that this new pattern solves. One that accepts the new pattern because it recognizes the void that can now be filled. Someone cannot give you one of these patterns when your mind is not in the inquisitive state. Insights cannot be handed out willy-nilly.
    Good teachers create this state in our minds before they show us the keys. I had only one such teacher in my entire educational experience. They are all too rare.
    The future of education? I say it's learning how to learn and guided insight development. The first part will eventually be relegated to the K-12 arena, and the second part will begin the day you enter the workforce - entering college or university as we know it today will be inefficient and reserved for those with a life of leisure.
    Guided insight development is unlikely in the classroom: it would require extraordinary teaching insight and a set of thought problems natural in this artificial environment.
    How do we get insights? We tackle problems for which we have insufficient knowledge to reach a straightforward solution, and no readily available book or expert to consult. How can we accelerate the development of insights? Tackle these problems in the company of others equally in the dark and equally engaged in the discovery process. When are the best insights built? When you're equally in the dark about the problem as you are about the solution - this is why you learn more from benchmarking outside your industry - you have to define the problem first - something we usually take for granted.
    Engineers at Bell Labs did it. The earlier reference provides an excellent example to learn from. The work was actually done by the Bell engineers themselves. Yes they had structured guidance; but they churned up the turf themselves - defining the problem as well as the solution to higher productivity. They created their own state of inquisitiveness and developed their own insights into high-productivity knowledge-work. Powerful stuff - full ownership. And then these same engineers turned around and organized self-discovery productivity workshops for all the other engineers. Unlike other forms of productivity training, Bell engineers that went through the six-week experience continued to improve their productivity over time, rather then showing a short term, quickly decaying, post-workshop effect. They clearly had new leveragable insights - not simply new information.
    Importantly, they used workshop exercises to apply the new knowledge they had discovered - and found out that fake exercises were not useful - so they brought in the real problems. They researched real problems with real people in real time. I call that realsearch, and I see this as the new shape of continuing education.
    As this essay goes to press we are conducting our first of the 1997 Discovery Workshops discussed in previous essays here. Though the stated intent of this eight workshop series is to discover a set of principles that underlie highly adaptable business processes and practices, in fact we are doing something even more valuable: we are employing the concepts of realsearch, with the expectation that our discoveries will have immediate and measurable impact - at least among those sites and participants engaged in the activity. Stay tuned -we'll chronicle the progress here.


1997-1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #031 - Originally Published 5/97 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

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