Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Innovation trigger: Idea vs insight

Where do I start? One question that invariably comes up during my innovation workshops is: “Where do I begin?” And when I throw the question back at the participants, one typical reply comes, “Start with an idea”. Let’s do a simple thought exercise. Ask yourself “How many ideas did I come across last week?” These ideas could be your own or you saw them on TV ads or in meetings or a friend told you etc. I am sure the number will be in 10s if not more. Now ask yourself, “How many ideas did I pursue?” We know what the answer is. A couple of months back I co-moderated a strategy planning exercise along with a colleague. A number of seemingly good ideas came up during the day. However, when it came to taking ownership for execution, people starting looking at each other. So here is a fundamental question: What is it that makes some people pursue some ideas some times and not do anything other times? Is it possible that this thing called “idea” is, after all, not the starting point of innovation?

Insights about “insight”: Let’s turn to a distant cousin of “idea” called “insight”. An insight is that “Aha!” or “Eureka” moment when you are convinced the problem is solved. What does science say about insights? Psychologists and neuroscientists have found out following essential features of “insight experience” (see Eureka Hunt):
  • Phase-1: First phase is called “preparatory phase” where brain devotes considerable power to the problem. Many times we call this “focusing on the problem”.
  • Phase-2: What happens next is “search phase” as brain starts looking for answers in all the relevant places.
  • Phase-3: The next phase is when the brain “gives-up” or reaches an “impasse”. While solving word puzzles, this happens in a few seconds.
  • Phase-4: This phase is what scientists call the most important phase and it is the phase of relaxation. During this phase the cortex seeks out more distant associations in the right hemisphere. As Jung-Beeman says, “That is why so many insights happen during warm showers”.
  • Phase-5: This is the last phase where the brain connects and restructures existing information (dots) and sees the same old thing in a completely new way. Miller, a neuroscientist from Princeton says, “Once that restructuring occurs, you never go back”.
So what? You are a lot more likely to pursue “insights” rather than “ideas” because they come with strong convictions. And the best place to start is with those problems which are pain in the neck today. Because, only for such problems you are likely to give undivided attention (or focus). And finally, don’t forget phase-4: the relaxation phase. Now, I am not surprised that most of my moments of insights have come when I am jogging.


  1. Is there a way to "processize" the first 3 steps of insight? For an insight to occur, generally speaking, the idea/problem has to be in the sub-conscious mind. One of the reasons, atleast for me, for not being to execute ideas, is that the ideas vanish as fast as they come in, in the absence of a concentrated effort consciously or otherwise, to hold them so that we'd gain insights later.

    I could relate insights to a celebrated Pdstanjali Sutra that says - dormant forces become alive, mind transcends limitations, etc., etc., when you are inspired by a great purpose.

  2. I am not sure how the first step can be processized. i.e. making sure we focus on a problem. Unless I get a pain in my neck which is becoming unbearable, it is unlikely that I give due attention (and visit a doctor). Hence, I feel the first step is more to do with whether you have a problem that is close to your heart (or neck).

    Now, in spite of having such a problem, I may not give due attention. I could think of one reason why it may happen. i.e. I feel the problem is unsolvable (at least for me). Hence, a feeling of helplessness sets in and I don't do anything. So it will be interesting to look at how to gain confidence in solving a problem that is of interest to us.

    Ideas which you feel "vanish" apparently don't really vanish. They sit as isolated dots in some remote area of your brain. It is interesting to find out if we can improve the process of connecting / accessing these distant dots.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Positive thinking

  4. Thank you for your comment on http://www.business-strategy-innovation.com/2009/11/innovation-perspectives-insights-and.html

    Insights are crucial to successful innovation and broader business success (when combined with execution), but I have to disagree with your definition of insights.

    What you describe as insights I would describe as instinctual innovation, and I contrast instinctual innovation with intellectual innovation here - http://www.youtube.com/asktheconsultant#p/u/8/HkK8f7funG0

    Insights are differentiated observations on the present and future needs-driven consumer behavior. Insights typically come from combining direct observations with trend forecasting, data analytics, adoption pattern analysis, and other techniques.

    These insights then serve as the basis for your idea generation, development, and the rest of your innovation processes.

    The article on Blogging Innovation that Vinay commented on, gives an iPhone example of an insight and an idea built off it.

    Editor, Blogging Innovation
    Founder, Business Strategy Innovation

  5. Thanks Braden for your comments. Let me see if I understood you right. You are saying that many times insights form a basis for idea generation. I agree with this. An insight about increase in the mortality rate in the next decade would give rise to an idea of getting into online coffin business (read this walmart story on your blog).

    For me, idea/insight and innovation are not the same thing. My working definition of innovation is i-squared-p which is idea + implementation + profit. Idea or insight can easily be separated from the innovation by years and sometimes decades. Edison wrote 10 use-cases based on his phonograph invention in 1878. Edison's phonograph company started making profit in the first decade of 20th century.