Demystifying Insight

Anthony Tasgal. Trainer, Author, Strategist, Lecturer

Issue 48 | September 2018


Joke: "Q: what's the difference between a research manager and an insight manager? A: About £30,000".

I come from a world where everyone worships at the altar of Insight, where planners, strategists and their clients put a high prize on the new Holy Grail of marketing.

Everyone wants to track it, hunt it, snare it and display it proudly on their walls:

"Got this one in the field. Tough one to track down, but now it has pride of place on the Insight Wall."

Insight has become the legendary unicorn, the Philosopher's Stone for swathes of people in the marketing and research worlds desperate to identify, control and monetise it, not to mention those at the creative end of the spectrum whose life depends on transforming the base metal of blank paper into the yellow pencil of imaginative gold.

Clients want insight to transform their business, to create - or sustain - competitive distance against their rivals and have a direct influence on ROI and the bottom line.

But as a Planner/strategist and lecturer who works with those seeking to enter the world of marketing and advertising, I suggest, in my new book, "The Inspiratorium", that we are inherently and culturally ill-equipped to seek out the mythical beast of insight and tend to hive it off to "creative" people rather than look for a creative leap that can take place at the strategic stage.

I would like to propose a theory and practice of "insightment", where we take some of the heavy load off of the creative end of the spectrum.

The Problem

Too often the predominant mode of thinking in our business is rational, thoughtful and logical. In the language of Daniel Kahneman and other doyens of Behavioural Economics, this is System 2 thinking: the conscious brain trying to think its way analytically out of a hole or into a pasture of disruptive fertility.

Often many of us in business claim to be neophiliacs (loving change) but are, in fact, intensely neophobic (change averse). Not entirely surprising as we are living in a society which I have defined as an "arithmocracy": increasingly obsessed with measurement and control, analysis and prediction and in thrall to KPIs and metrics. It is fuelling a form of "runaway reductionism": in school, government, the education system and beyond, this arithmocracy is eroding our humanity in the face of a spurious belief in the sanctity
of numbers.

To be clear: I am not against data (big or otherwise), it is the fuel on which much of society runs. But I don't think –especially at a time of both awe and fear evidenced in the likes of "Mr. Robot", "Humans" and "Westworld" - it should be thoughtlessly worshipped at the expense of emotions, humanity and storytelling (to name but a few of our quintessentially human characteristics).

As I am wont to say, you won't get much meaning from a mean.

This has also led to an increase in compartmentalisation, which is the one of the most implacable enemies of insight. As companies grow and evolve, departments become increasingly fragmented into sub-departments/compartments which tend to become self-reinforcing in-groups, patrolling their own boundaries against threats from all outsiders.

Finally, our individual brains can also become home to frozen assumptions as our brain relies on "heuristics", short cuts which it (unconsciously) develops in order to minimise the cognitive burden of having to think for ourselves at every decision-making node. The tendency here is for ideas and assumptions to become fossilised.

The Solution

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny." Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Instead all of us across the creative spectrum need to downweight the literal System 2 in favour of feeding the lateral System 1, the bubbling, seething and intuitive unconscious, where experiences, memories and imagination can get to work playfully and serendipitously.

Here are three ways to create a menu for insightment and fight against our cultural bias in favour of the analytical.

a) Embrace Failure

"Fallor ergo sum" [I am wrong, therefore I am] St Augustine.

We have become so driven by the need to succeed and so ready to punish failure (ask any football manager) that we have lost the essence of St Augustine's words.

Etymology fans (who I hope will find plenty to enjoy the book) will point out too that "errare" in Latin means "to wander" (still visible in the word "erratic" or "aberrant") with no hint of failure.

Scientists like Darwin and Vilfredo Pareto (signor 80/20) and modern screenwriters like Charlie ("Being John Malkovich") Kaufman have all testified to the liberating power of failure and error.

Research increasingly shows the creative value of idly daydreaming and wandering, while unconscious System 1 does its work of finding insight in its own unforced way.

b) Be Nai¨ve

Hemmed in by groupthink, frightened of going against the rest of our tribe/team/company, bouncing around the echo- chamber of our own frozen assumptions and conventions, we have to unthink (in every sense) how we liberate ourselves from the prison of logic and extend our cognitive diversity.

Childish playfulness should be something that we retain proudly long after the education system and/or business has indoctrinated us that work= serious: in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, the opposite of play isn't work- it's depression.

Much has been written by the likes of Professor Philip Tetlock, professor of political psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, on our over-reliance on (narrow) expertise and how it is a hindrance to genuine new thinking of all forms. There is a strong body of evidence from Tetlock that the accuracy of experts in all fields is disconcertingly mythical.

So, we need to resist the lure of being wholly Insider- Thinkers and act like we are also seeing things as Outsiders, who make new connections, see new links and use playfulness to create genuinely disruptive ideas.

In the book I discuss examples such as Irving Berlin, Michael Ventris, who decoded Linear B, and the European exiles who founded Hollywood as we know it.

c) Seek Surprise

Of the six universal human emotions that scientists since Darwin and Paul Ekman have identified, surprise is perhaps the least appreciated.

The shock or twist of recognition means that it penetrates our conscious filters (what I call "attention spam") and will create the emotional cue of "aha", "eureka" or Asimov's "that's funny" without which any insightment is doomed to fail [and here I really do mean fail].

Examples include Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, arguably literature's first detective story, and Andrew Stanton, director and writer of "Wall-E", "Up" and the various "Toy Stories".

Insightment and Beyond

So, let's go out of our way to decompartmentalise and flood ourselves, or more accurately our unthinking System 1, with cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary randomness, serendipity, and spontaneity; to seek out the challenging, quirky and eclectic, maybe even the arcane and recondite.

From schools to offices, avoiding narrow specialisation we need to hunt out what experts call ESIs- External Serendipitous Influences- that will truly guarantee insightment and the joy of surprise.

"The Inspiratorium" flits between the poles of science and art, hedgehogs and foxes, quantum physics and etymology, philosophy and football, ancient history and artificial intelligence. It is a web of connections, of jumps and leaps that will take you to different places and areas that will intrigue and inspire.

His previous book, The Storytelling Book was runner up in 2016's Marketing Book of the Year and is already on a fourth reprint

Read "The Inspiratorium" if you want to find out...

  1. What Coldplay have in common with Baroness Susan Greenfield, Tom Hiddleston and Mindy Kaling
  2. What links testicles to orchids, or almonds to seahorses
  3. The result of Gustav III's great Tea and Coffee Experiment
  4. Why you should never disgruntle a typesetter
  5. Who are the top performers on the Erdo?s Bacon Sabbath index
  6. Why we are strangers to ourselves
  7. The unit of time between reindeer toilet stops
  8. Which doctor brought together Capra and Kafka
  9. Who knocked up the story of puttanesca sauce
  10. Which seminal psychology experiment involved pantyhose.

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