3 strategies for tapping into insight

Insight is different from standard problem-solving methods because it doesn’t just address the symptoms or surface-level issues.
Insight is different from standard problem-solving methods because it doesn’t just address the symptoms or surface-level issues.
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Peipert
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I once worked with a leader—we’ll call him Nick—who was about to fire his entire team. He had tried everything he could think of to get his team members to innovate. But each time they came up with a great idea, they failed to execute. He was at his wit’s end.

It turns out it wasn’t the team that had an issue. It was Nick.

After some serious digging, we discovered that the team was stuck at the starting line because Nick had not addressed the broader issues of risk and failure. His team members were more than capable of executing on what was working, but when it came to new ideas, they were worried because they didn’t know what the outcome of those innovations would be.

Using this newfound insight, Nick was able to have intentional conversations about risk and create an environment where his team members felt like they could act on their innovative ideas with confidence. That’s the power of tapping into insight.

Understanding insight

Insight is a sudden understanding of a stimulus, situation, or event that produces a non-obvious or non-dominant interpretation. It looks at the root of the problem you’re trying to address and at the patterns that either cause the problem or reveal an unconventional but targeted solution. Insight is different from standard problem-solving methods because it doesn’t just address the symptoms or surface-level issues.

Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who studies insight at Northwestern University, found that there are differences in the ability to solve issues with insight (internal) versus analysis (external). An insight is often a long-forgotten memory or a combination of memories. To access these, the brain needs to be able to quiet down and remove all distractions. Our natural tendency is to want to fill time by checking our email or perusing social media. However, when we quiet the brain and let it float, it can access those memories.

After all, Albert Einstein created the theory of relativity while daydreaming about chasing a sunbeam to the edge of the universe. Isaac Newton developed the theory of gravity after he happened to see an apple fall from a tree. And one study found that people returning to difficult tasks after taking a break with an easy task can boost their performance by about 40%.

Tapping into insight

Today many of us are always working, stressed, and tethered to tech. As a result, we have fewer insights and can’t maximize the full potential of our brains. So we have to decide whether we’re going to let our environment control us or utilize our emotional intelligence to design our environment in a way that optimizes our brain’s potential.

There are three strategies you can use to tap into your own insights to solve problems differently:

  1. Use mind-mapping for a new approach. Limit distractions and give your brain time to float so it can identify subtle signals and begin to connect them. Then, try “mind mapping.” This method gives you an opportunity to surpass the initial chaos that occurs when a problem shows up by visualizing the information.Draw out the scenario or question at hand to help you process the information differently and provide you with the physical and brain space to create connections, discover patterns, and generate ideas leading to game-changing insights.
  2. A mind map essentially recreates the structure of how the brain generates ideas. Starting with a theme in the middle, a pattern of ideas unfolds organically in the mind, spreading through a network of concepts rather than being categorized in a particular order. It lets the brain go. Then, it becomes easier to categorize and organize those ideas later.
  3. Direct your attention inward before you start to problem-solve.You know that friend of yours who always says her best ideas come to her in the shower? It’s because she’s tuning into her own thoughts. As for me, I often look at the problem I’m trying to solve and then walk away from it to let my mind go where it will. I turn my attention inward and tune out my environment by closing my eyes or just staring out the window.As a kid, I remember watching my dad do this. He would come home from work and sit down and stare out the window. He tuned everything out. I was always fascinated by this and wondered what he was thinking. He was internally processing and did it almost every day for about 15 to 20 minutes. This act of directing attention inward helps inspiration strike more easily. So do some experimenting and find out what activity helps you internally process, whether it’s taking a jaunt around the block, hopping in the shower, or simply gazing out the window.
  4. Get at the root of your problem to deepen your understanding. If the same subject or roadblock keeps arising with an individual, dive into the question beneath her question. Why is she asking it? What is her motive?Get at the root issues by not narrowing your options too quickly. Instead, seek out alternatives and challenge biases as a way of deepening understanding. Also, make sure you’re not substituting the real problem with another problem that is easier to solve. Daniel Kahneman wrote about this phenomenon in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” in which he discusses that people are more likely to find a simpler question to answer than handle the difficult problem that really needs solving.

These practices pull our thinking away from the concrete thinking of “How will we do this?” to the abstract thinking of “Why are we doing this?” Don’t fall behind because you’re distracted by everything around you—tap into insight to focus your attention and solve the problems that really matter.

Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group.