Wagner Dodge was running up a hill with 15 other smokejumpers. Their team’s original mission of putting out a canyon fire had turned into a fight for their lives. Faced with weather in the upper 90s, a steep incline, and an explosive fire closing in on the them, Dodge realized that they couldn’t outrun the fire. Instead of giving up, Dodge had a flash of insight – he could quite literally fight fire with fire to survive.
With the roaring fire only a hundred yards from his team, Dodge lit the brush in front of him. He waved to the others to join him as he put a wet handkerchief over his mouth and laid down in the ashes, but they thought that he’d lost his mind. On the contrary, Dodge knew that fire needs fuel, heat, and oxygen to burn. They wouldn’t be able to remove the heat or the oxygen, but he realized that by starting the brush on fire, he could remove the source of fuel and survive the larger blaze. His remarkable insight was the reason that he, and two of the other smokejumpers who followed his lead, survived when others fell victim to the inferno.
Insights are a strange thing. They are those “Aha” moments where something clicks, and the pieces fall into place. When learning something new, these moments are critical. “Aha” moments stick with the learner, and stand out as places where the learner connected with the content to the point where they could start to make inferences. Once they’re able to start applying the content to tangible aspects of their lives, interest and retention skyrocket. It’s easy to see why we should put an emphasis on insights.
In his book, Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein shares stories and lessons explaining how insights are triggered, why they’re wrongfully suppressed, and how we can capitalize on them.
5 Insight Triggers
The process of combining new information with information that was already known to trigger insights. Reanalyzing personal heuristics from a new perspective when additional information becomes available is a great way to find creative solutions.
“Connecting the dots and solving a problem by being exposed to more ideas.”
Imagine a learner is being trained on a new system. If the training draws parallels between the new program and one that the learner is already comfortable with, the learner can assume that there will be more similarities, and will explore usage of the new program to see what else they can adapt from their experience with the original program.
Chance occurrences, or associations, that have not been noticed or previously explained.
“Observing a coincidence means that we’ve spotted some events that seem related to each other even though they don’t seem to have any obvious causal link.”
Coincidences are inherently hard to plan for, because they happen by chance. When a coincidence occurs, it’s important to take the time to investigate if it’s useful, and if it’s possible to replicate. If both of these criteria are met, a new process is formed.
Insights brought about by further exploration or examination stemming from an “observation rather than by the repetition of a pattern.” It leads to the thought, “What’s going on here and what are we doing about it?”
If an employee is working on a project similar to one that’s been done before, and they’re given freedom in how to complete the project, they’ll likely perform the task differently than their predecessor. If they take time to review their work with their team, and look for efficiencies that might have been absent on previous projects, they might inaverdently discover new material to be trained. Over time, this leads to the entire team optimizing their workflow for that type of project, and recommending content that can be developed into training for other teams.
Contradictions are insights that make us sit up straight and say, “That can’t be right,” because they don’t follow predicted patterns. Klein terms this the “Tilt! reaction” because it’s the feeling as if we were an old-time pinball machine that flashed the “Tilt!” message after being nudged a bit too hard.
Rather than freezing like the old-time pinball machine, or getting frustrated with the cognitive dissonance, we should take a step back. By taking time to verify our doubts, we can find ill-formed assumptions and work to improve our thought process in the future. These insights can challenge established heuristics, which helps us update and refine those mental shortcuts.
When a learner has a belief that they’re confident in, and the content from a training contradicts their beliefs, it’s time for a review. If you leave a learner with a contradiction to something that they feel they already know, they’ll disregard the training entirely. If the training digs a bit deeper to validate the learner’s confusion and explain why their initial belief was off-base, this sticks with the learner, and the training is a long-term success.
5. Creative Desperation
This insight trigger happens when people are stuck and need some sort of breakthrough. Their desperation puts them in a spot where they try solutions “they might never have tried to use if any of the acceptable moves had looked promising.” Wagner Dodge discovering that he could save himself from the fire by lighting a fire is an example of creative desperation.
Giving a learner freedom to try something before giving them they answer can incite creative desperation. If they’re provided a time limit and an incentive to be successful in something they haven’t learned before, they might try something untested. Their solution might not always work, but if you give learners enough opportunity to figure out a creative solution, it enables them to connect to the material.
What Prevents Organizations From Gaining Insights?
Organizations are motivated to suppress insights through The Predictability Trap and The Perfection Trap. With the predictability trap, organizations place such a high priority on things being predictable that they fail to see or consider better opportunities. With the Perfection Trap, organizations resist insights that are found by going off the beaten path due to the potential risk and cost.
“Organizations have lots of reasons to dislike errors: they can pose severe safety risks, they disrupt coordination, they lead to waste, they reduce the chance for project success, they erode the culture, and they can result in lawsuits and bad publicity. In your job as a manager, you find yourself spending most of your time flagging and correcting errors.”
How Can Organizations Gain Insights?
“To improve performance, we need to reduce errors and uncertainty and we need to increase insights. Unfortunately, the two arrows often conflict with each other. The actions we take to reduce errors and uncertainty can get in the way of insights. Therefore, organizations are faced with a balancing act.”
Employees should have some form of outlet (an oversight group or internal forum) where they can share their insights in an unfiltered manner, thus reducing the chance of the insights being blocked by a risk-adverse manager. Klein was able to humanize the process for how the “Aha moment” is triggered, and teaches his readers how to improve their chances of having more of these insights. He provides detailed examples and encourages the reader to draw their own conclusions, allowing for our own “Aha moments” along the way. His clear descriptions and real world applications are a strong template to follow when developing a training of any kind.
Seeing What Others Don’t doesn’t provide a simple formula for gaining insights, but does effectively provide principles that can help people from blocking insights and open themselves up to new discoveries. Klein’s humanized storytelling approach to breaking down challenging concepts makes this a compelling read throughout. It prompts us to reconsider our approach to learning, and provides a new perspective when considering the effectiveness of a potential course design. Opening up to new insights allows us to work through challenging projects and improve team workflows. Insightfulness is a trait that can serve us well whether we’re putting out fires in the forest or at the office.
Klein, Gary. Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Philadelphia: PublicAffairs, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2013. Print.