By Matthew Milan
What matters is insight. Real insight and not just “findings.” And insight yielded by a clearly defined and repeatable process. Physical manipulation, a heated brain and stress also help
I’m a strategy atheist. I don’t believe in it anymore. But I do believe that great thinking and great design can make businesses better. More than ever, it’s critical for companies and organizations to really understand how they can work smarter, to differentiate themselves in markets and provide customers with better value across the board. In my opinion, strategy fails to deliver on these outcomes. It’s missing a key ingredient: real insight.
I wasn’t always a non-believer. I worked on more than one team that was an incredible mix of strategic perspectives and design chops. Our design decisions were always based on solving a specific business goal, and “laddered up” perfectly into the broader business strategies of the clients with whom we were working. Operating at the intersection of account planning, interaction design and business innovation didn’t feel like cookie-cutter strategy work. But, in retrospect, it was.
Something kept nagging at the back of my mind. I was doing interesting work, but while it was big and bold, it somehow seemed inconsequential. Everything was smart, justified and had a clear path to execution. But it didn’t feel like I was really helping my clients make their businesses better. So I quit my job, convinced a friend to do the same and we started Normative. I thought we’d take our ability to create great strategies to a whole new level. That’s not what happened.
No one really knows how to “do” strategy.
We asked ourselves whether design and strategy could be developed as interconnected outputs of a studio environment and then set up the company to answer that question. From the start we looked at incorporating everything we knew about strategy and design into a new and better process. Most of our early clients came to us for help with web or product strategy. We did all the things we hadn’t been able to do at our previous jobs, and the results were the same.
Strategies were average at best. Our ideas helped clients, but didn’t take them to another level. We were frustrated. We understood that part of the answer to better strategy was to have the right information, but good information wasn’t enough.
There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the past few years on the relationship between strategy and creativity. Most of it has been lightweight – books that you can read on an airplane. There are some great notions, but they lack any serious meat around execution. As we dug deeper, it became clear that there was very little in the way of serious literature of how to “do” strategy. Lots of authors have weighed in on what strategy looks like, but in peeling back the layers of the onion, we learned that little existed in the way of actual technique. It’s hard to improve a practice, when no repeatable practice exists.
We can argue that a practice for strategy, specifically creative strategy, exists, but it’s a weak argument. Brainstorming, workshops and other group ideation techniques themselves don’t constitute a practice. And they certainly don’t result in repeatable outcomes. To be fair, organizations that do creative activities on a consistent basis do seem to come up with more innovative strategies. But I haven’t see this quantified and I don’t believe that these activities alone are what create the outcomes that so many companies desire.
We have to develop true insights.
Great strategies are the result of seeing the world differently, reframing existing understanding into a new and more valuable perspective. Getting better at strategy wasn’t the answer. We had to get better at insight.
Insight is a commonly used but poorly understood term that suggests the ability to see a problem from a different perspective. Or, more accurately, it is the moment when an individual or group sees a problem and its solution as a single notion. This definition is quite different from what is generally implied when the term is used in the context of strategy and business. Here an insight is an interesting and potentially valuable finding, often developed from statistical analysis of quantitative data. But, as we’ve come to say at Normative, findings are not insights.
That we didn’t understand the nature of insight came as a shock. We (and almost everyone else) were building strategies on a well-intentioned but poorly constructed mix of findings and creativity. Our strategies were clever and well positioned, but they didn’t reframe our understanding of the problem in a way that revealed a better solution. It’s not that we didn’t have real insights from time to time, but we had no way to guarantee the generation of insight. We knew that insight generation was a capability that experienced individuals had, regardless of field, but it wasn’t clear how to repeat this, especially with teams of individuals.
Determined to make sense of the problem of insight generation, we dug into the academic literature on insight. What we discovered was interesting and surprisingly easy to implement as practice.
Making insight generation a repeatable outcome.
Boiling down hundreds of articles and papers on the nature of insight reveals this simple but effective model: pattern loading, burying and triggers. When these notions are combined in a workplace environment, especially in the context of problem solving, the results are stunning. Better still, with basic, structured changes to the problem-solving approaches, insight generation becomes a repeatable outcome.
To make insight generation work, you need to pay close attention to each component of the model.
“Pattern loading” is the act of filling your mind with information. This is the first step in developing a strong insight, and something that most teams and organizations already do quite well: brainstorming, researching, crunching data and generally developing ideas and surfacing findings. The broader the scope of the pattern loading, the better. Inputs from outside the defined problem space are not only helpful but critical. Most teams fall short in this part of the insight generation process in two areas. First, they assume that pattern loading (ideas and findings) is the end of the process, and second, they do most “loading” by reading or conversation.
What makes pattern loading really work isn’t just volume or scope of information, but how it is physically loaded into our heads. The human brain is a funny thing. It’s not just a consciousness in a vat, but an entire kino-cognitive system. In layman’s terms, it means that doing things – especially manipulating physical things with our hands – is actually a form of thinking. The term for this is “epistemic action,” or actions that teach us through our interactions with the physical world.
Essentially, when you manipulate the world physically, it makes it easier for your brain to perform all kinds of mental computations, especially tasks that are related to reducing complexity. In practice this means that a physical task, like writing information down and reorganizing it in physical groupings on paper or a whiteboard, not only helps instill information in your brain, it also improves your thinking about it.
The effect is enhanced when you work together as a group. The human mind is wired up to use the external environment as canvas for problem solving. That’s why it’s easier to solve a complex math problem on paper than in your head. Externalizing information helps with cognition.
Distributed cognition is a great, practical and natural way to problem solve, and works best when you put information into an environment in many ways and move it around. In practical terms, this means talking about what you are doing as you do it. It’s an even more powerful approach when you do all of this stuff standing up—by moving your body and other information in your surroundings, you’re reshaping the conceptual maps and models in your mind.
When you walk, talk and move around as a group, solving a problem, you’re taking advantage of all kinds of great, built-in cognitive capabilities. Changing our problem-solving workflow from sitting and talking, while one person takes notes on a whiteboard, to standing up, writing, sketching and talking as a group had immediate and pronounced effects on the creativity of our team, and our problem-solving sessions with clients.
Forget everything you learned.
The next step in generating insight is to forget about everything you’ve just learned. We call this “burying the information.” A key part of the literature about insight is that the human brain needs time to subconsciously process all of the patterns that it has swimming around a problem it is trying to solve. The simplest way to do this is put the problem on pause for a few days and not work on it. Too often we attempt to go straight from getting the information (pattern loading) to prescribing a solution or answer.
By giving a bit of time for the brain to do pattern processing, the results are much better. Naturally, you don’t want to have an individual or team sitting idle for days, so doing this with more than one project at a time is a must. In practice, the overlap of patterns from multiple projects is good: The more information you have at your disposal, the more likely the brain is to develop a real insight.
Heat up your thinking—literally.
At some point in this process, one or more significant insights should be generated. What we’ve learned is while you can’t formalize the process of insight generation; it is something that you can trigger. When we’re trying to bring insights to the surface at Normative, we don’t schedule presentations or discussions, but instead focus on trigger activities. From the literature on insight and our own experiences, we’ve identified three forms of triggers that we can work with: temperature, physical activity and stress.
There’s a reason people have insights in the shower: The temperature of the water on the skull raises the temperature of the brain just enough to make our wetware work at optimal levels. Thinking feverishly isn’t just a turn of phrase – brain temperature matters. Keeping the rooms you work in warm (without being uncomfortable) is a good idea. Physical activity, whether it’s a physical group activity, like brainstorming, or solo exercise, like running or cycling, really helps to get the body temperature in the right zone for the brain to work its magic.
Making “stuff” helps the brain understand complex problems, whether or not you’re a formal designer. Lego does this with “Serious Play” workshops, using its plastic building blocks for corporate team training and collaboration exercises. Our experience is that the best insight (and the best reframing) happens when you’re mapping, sketching or modelling something out in physical space.
Stress is your friend.
Finally, we focus a lot on stress as a trigger. Not bad stress, but productive stress. Putting time or resource constraints on a problem is one of the best ways to make insights surface. We’ll often run a series of short, focused prototyping sessions of five minutes or less, with a countdown timer and hard stop. The stress and demands of forcing your thinking out in less than ideal circumstances can produce remarkable results.
When you combine the three triggers, you get incredible outcomes. My favourite example of this process happened in 1949. Firefighter Wag Dodge was running from a forest fire raging toward him at 500 feet a minute, when he suddenly stopped, bent down, lit a match and set fire to the ground in front of him. This small fire burned away the grass and foliage and created a small area of safety, preserving his life. The invention of the firebreak happened in an instant –inspired by the heat, physical activity and, especially, stress – and has since changed the practice of firefighting in open areas.
In truth, strategy isn’t dead. But the old ways of developing strategy are. A great insight is like Wag’s wildfire. It quickly races through the room, consuming everyone, including colleagues and clients. It’s the ultimate buy-in, the aha moment, and it beats the outcomes of traditional strategic planning every time.
This essay orginally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Applied Arts Magazine.
Matthew Milan is the CEO of Normative, a design studio based in Toronto. Over the past decade, Matthew has led teams of designers, analysts, researchers and strategists in the creation all types of interactive experiences. His work has ranged from designing 3D interfaces for web-mapping tools to leading global innovation strategy initiatives.