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There is a school of scientific thought prevalent in psychology and behavioural economics that sees fact emerging from rigorous, controlled experimentation. As a result much of what we understand about the way in which we think is derived from the observation of undergraduates performing laboratory tasks. Whilst there is much that can be learned from such activities, it’s not necessarily the same as what goes on “in the wild”, and this underpins the research approach that Gary Klein has taken in his exploration of how we have insights. Klein argues that the existing literature has been shaped to a huge extent by the act of lab experimentation, and he opens up new thinking about how we come up with new ideas through real-world observation.

What he comes up with, as a result, is a relatively straightforward model for how we derive insights, and what we as individuals and organisations might accordingly do about it.

Klein’s study of 120 stories of insights leads him to see three primary routes we may go down when coming up with new ideas.

The first is spotting new connections, joining dots as it were. The archetype here might be something like the PostIt note- what if we combined little bits of paper with a fairly crappy glue?

The second is spotting contradictions. The most memorable story Klein recounts here is of a police officer spotting the driver of a new and expensive car flicking cigarette ash inside it. That act, a contradiction with what one would expect from the behaviour of the owner of a new and expensive car, caused the driver to be pulled up and a case of a stolen automobile solved.

The final path is of solving problems in a time of pressure or crisis. This is what Klein argues has been the focus of most experimental psychology, and is generally a matter of challenging assumptions and reframing the problem: the classic logic test of joining nine dots in a square with only four straight lines and without taking pen from paper is a good example. When confronted by this test, most of us initially limit our thinking to drawing lines within the box, but the solution can’t be derived until that assumption is challenged and discarded.

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I’m having lots of conversations about innovation with clients and others at the moment, and this three-path model looks a very useful way to help clarify what is meant. Klein then also offers some thoughts on how, in particular, organisations systemically mitigate against most of these paths in what he calls the War on Error.

Organisational improvement is the sum of improving quality, reducing errors and coming up with new ideas. But the former are much easier to measure, track and report, and as a result in corporate life you will have an easier (and more successful) life general if you avoid making mistakes rather than taking risks with new ideas. Movements like Six Sigma have systematically institutionalised this “no mistakes” culture, and combined with hierarchy and other organisational dynamics Klein argues that most corporations are designed to maintain status quo.

He purposes that alongside “quality” departments, organisations need balancing innovation groups, championing the cause of doing things differently- but that even then, making insight and innovation a repeatable process runs risk of eventually constraining the natural chaos and serendipity needed for innovation to occur.

Given the nature of his research, there are stacks of examples from the real world of insightful thought big and small. On occasions Klein seems apologetic for his approach not being scientific enough, but overall his work, and the insights he himself draws, are well worth the read.

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