How To Set Your Head On Fire?

In fond remembrance of Phil Dusenberry

Anatomy of An Insight

This first post from our slate #1 for the publishing year 2021-22 is about insights.

It answers the questions — What is an insight? How to recognize it? Why is it different from Ideas?

It also serves as our response to pumpkingram #5 — A good insight can fuel a thousand ideas.

Lastly, it articulates our mission here at The Strategist. Read on to find out more.

Attention Economy

4,515 words | 16’20” reading time | 57/100 readability (similar to NYT)

Editor’s Note

On May 03, 2021 we announced the first slate of explorations for the year 2021 – 22. We had promised five explorations in slate #01.

The current article corresponds to exploration #02 of the slate, as highlighted below. The rest of the topics, to be covered in subsequent posts, are grayed out.

The Strategist: Slate #01 for 2021 – 22

In addition, the current post is also the first in our series on insights — The Insight Safari. We will follow it up with exploration #04 from the slate — Blowing Stuff Up — in our next post.

Let’s begin!

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Nana Starts A Revolution

The year was 1984.

The event in question transpired about 275 miles northeast of London, in the city of Gateshead, located on the river Tyne across from its better-known sibling Newcastle — of the Newcastle United fame and, pertinently, The Casanova Club.

In May that year, the Gateshead city council ran a social experiment to help the elderly and the differently-abled. They tested Videotex, a system that enabled people to order and pay for their groceries, baked goods, and medicines from the comfort of their homes using their TV.

The first person to use this system was Mrs. Jane Snowball — a 72-year-old grandmother who had broken her hip and found the trip to the local retailers particularly taxing. She would select her groceries from a simple, intuitive menu on her TV using the TV remote, pay for them and have them delivered to her door from the local TESCO (a supermarket chain in the UK).

The person behind this system was the UK inventor Michael Aldrich who pioneered the prototype for Videotex in 1979 with help from his engineer Peter Champion. Five years later, it would lead to the ‘seminal act’ of e-commerce.

Purists may disagree and point instead towards the ganja sale organized between the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the MIT in 1971, using ARPANET.

Close, but no cigar.

Nana Snowball’s TESCO shopping list was THE first online order by a mainstream consumer that went beyond lab fantasies and pharmaceutically induced introspection. It was e-commerce six years before the commercial internet was born, a decade before Bezos founded Amazon.

Sitting in her cushy armchair in 1984, Mrs. Snowball had triggered a revolution. She had no idea that her simple order of margarine, cornflakes, and eggs would snowball into a multi-trillion dollar industry. That single act spawned countless startups across the entire value chain, serving billions of consumers and reshaping the global economy as we know it.

This e-commerce avalanche was borne by a single insight that Aldrich had in 1979 — a classic example of how a good insight can fuel a thousand ideas.

Every Friday night, he and his wife would load their children in a car and drive down to the local supermarket for the weekly grocery shopping. He grew tired of this monotonous routine and thought, “This is crazy! Why don’t they deliver it to me?”

As we shall discuss later, Aldrich wasn’t the first to think about home delivery. That wasn’t his insight. His insight was about consumer access to corporate information —

Bring the Mountain to Mahomet on a Screen   

Next thing you know, he hooked up his 26” TV to a real-time transaction processing computer and made the system communicate with other computers using a telephone line. That opened the hitherto isolated world of corporate computer information systems to other players in the value chain, starting with the consumers.

And thus, e-commerce was born.

Nana Snowball Starts A Revolution

What is An Insight?

Before taking you on the Insight Safari, let me recount how I got started on this path.

In 1984, Pepsi aired an ad under its ‘New Generation’ campaign. The spot was called ‘Convention’, and Michael Jackson featured in it in a concert setting. BBDO, the famed advertising agency, created this commercial.

The spot itself is mildly memorable (you can watch it below — it uses a reworked ‘Billie Jean’ track). However, it gained notoriety because an exploding fireworks display tower set Michael’s hair on fire on the set of this ad!

‘Convention’ feat. Michael Jackson — Pepsi, 1984

This incident inspired the title of a 2005 book, Then We Set His Hair on Fire. Phil Dusenberry, an advertising giant who was BBDO’s executive creative director at the time of ‘Convention’, wrote this witty semi-autobiographical gem. He writes about the subject matter in the book’s introduction —

This is a book about insights in business — how we get them, how we recognize them, how we keep them coming.

I fondly remember the summer of 2007 when drawn by its covers, I read the book for the first time. The bookstore usher almost expelled me as I read the first two chapters before paying. It is among the five most valuable works I have read until now. I strongly recommend it to all insight seekers.

The maxim that partly instigated this post — a good insight can fuel a thousand ideas — appears in the book’s introduction. I don’t blindly believe statements coming from authority and experts such as Phil, but he does a great job providing evidence to support his sound bite.

And though Phil wrote the adage about advertising, I believe it applies to insights in general. It is one of the signatures of impactful insights.

But I am jumping the gun here. Before we make more statements about insight, it is essential to understand what it is and what are its defining features. So, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s pick up the dictionary.

Just tap on the keys below, i.e. ‘British English’ and ‘American English’, to expand the accordion and read the dictionary entries for insight.

insight (ˈɪnˌsaɪt ) NOUN

British English
  • the ability to perceive clearly or deeply; penetration
  • a penetrating and often sudden understanding, as of a complex situation or problem
  • psychology
    • the capacity for understanding one’s own or another’s mental processes
    • the immediate understanding of the significance of an event or action
  • psychiatry
    • the ability to understand one’s own problems, sometimes used to distinguish between psychotic and neurotic disorders

(Courtesy: Collins English Dictionary. © HarperCollins Publishers)

American English
  • the ability to see and understand clearly the inner nature of things, esp. by intuition
  • a clear understanding of the inner nature of some specific thing
    • Psychology | awareness of one’s own mental attitudes and behaviors
    • Psychiatry | recognition of one’s own mental disorder

(Courtesy: Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4e, 2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Depending on the context, insight is the ability to gain (and communicate) a clear, penetrating understanding about a system (or a problem) and the clear, penetrating understanding itself.

In business parlance, more often than not, insight refers to the latter — that’s a pity because, without the former, the latter becomes so challenging to obtain.

Moving forward, in this post and elsewhere in this blog, the term insight will refer to the latter, whereas the bigram insight-ability (for lack of a better term) will refer to the former.

Let me put insight and insight-ability in perspective using a generic example you may find closer to experience.

Think back to the times when you or one of your colleagues, bosses, or stakeholders interjected in a meeting, asking the question — “So what’s the bottom line here?” — or a variant thereof.

You, or they, were looking for insight, expecting the presenter to have insight-ability.

An insight is not quite the ‘so what’ of analysis or research — that is often the recommended idea(s) or action(s). Insight is also not the analysis or the research itself. It is the fine line between the two, and once you obtain a good insight, you cross that line for good. The skill of crossing the line consistently (and frequently) is insight-ability.

With this distinction in mind, the remainder of this article will focus on insight, starting with what defines a good one.

The Telltale Signs of Impactful Insights

I state here the three signatures of an impactful insight — defining features that you can use to recognize a ‘good’ insight. In business, as in life, this recognition is essential. However, keep in mind that insight is more than these three signatures. We will discuss that in some detail in the section after this.

  • An insight crosses the Rubicon

Impactful insights deliver a profound and compelling truth that fundamentally changes your worldview. They punch you in the gut, and the best ones knock you out.

Think about Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ moment. I am sure you have heard or read the anecdote. Let me recount it here anyway.

Archimedes was a Greek scholar, a polymath, if you will. Before his discovery, the one we will get to in a minute, there were mechanisms to weigh objects to a certain degree of precision, but there wasn’t any way to measure their volumes if the objects were irregular.

So, let’s say that you had an irregular royal crown. Its maker, the jeweler, claims it to be pure gold. Before Archimedes’ discovery, there was no easy to validate the claim.

One would typically do so by comparing the density of the crown with that of pure gold and the two should match. However, since there was no way to measure the volume of an irregular object, one couldn’t determine its density.

Then, one day when Archimedes stepped into a bathtub, he observed that as he submerged his body in the water, the water level in the bath rose. The more he immersed himself, the more the water level rose. The opposite was also true.

At that moment, he understood that when an object immerses in water, it displaces a volume of water equivalent to the volume of its fraction submerged below the water’s surface. That gave him a way to measure the volume and, therefore, the density of irregular objects.

So excited was Archimedes on his discovery, he ran naked on the streets of Syracuse crying Eureka! Eureka!

That is what insight does — it makes you run naked on the street (or an equivalent thereof) because it has delivered a shock to your system. It presents a discontinuity that has the potential to alter the way you operate significantly.

  • An insight goes viral

Impactful insights are memorable, communicable, and understandable — in short, they are contagious.

Virality is an important (albeit risky, and if one is not careful, misleading) identifier, especially if insight is to have a sizeable impact on the human condition. In a world marred by parity and starved for attention, virality helps get the right hands on deck, reinforcing a bias for action.

That is why masters of insights often deliver them in the form of soundbites, maxims, analogies, and anecdotes.

Think back to the most potent advice you have ever received, the motivational stories you tell people from your life, or the speeches you keep returning to on YouTube. Think of the things that compelled you to take action. They will often — not always, but often enough — boil down to pithy, moving statements, powerful anecdotes, meaningful analogies, memorable stories, and the like.

The best example of this is the famous commencement speech by Steve Jobs, given to the Class of 2005 at Stanford. I probably don’t even need to link it here (though I will).

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Jobs had insight-ability. He would cut through the noise, dive deep and reach the very essence of the things he did. Pick up his interviews, and you will find them to be insightful.

Here’s another one from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in May 1997. You can jump to the 1’54” mark for the insight — working backward from consumers to technology, or ‘Consumer First’. Jobs then recalls an anecdote, giving an example to clarify where he wanted Apple to be, vis-à-vis products.

Putting the Consumer First

  • An insight spawns ideas

Impactful insights lead to actions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When you truly understand how something works — i.e., when you have an insight into something — that knowledge enables you to change the status quo through iterations and innovations. When the insight is powerful, it leads to multiple such ideas.

As we saw in the opening gambit of this article, the e-commerce origin story provides a striking example of the above, including how a good insight can fuel a thousand ideas.

The ideas, in this case, are the gamut of businesses that form the burgeoning e-commerce landscape today — from online storefronts to the supply chains and the IT infrastructure (both hardware and software) supporting these stores.

Note that your resources, knowledge, and expertise constrain and direct your translation of insight into actions. For example, Michael Aldrich wasn’t the first to think why can’t the shops deliver goods to his door.

Mail-order catalogs have been around at least since the 1840s. The home shopping industry had emerged in 1977, two years before Aldrich’s experiments with his TV. And let’s not forget that doorstep selling that has been around since antiquity.

However, Aldrich and his team were experts in manufacturing computers and TVs. At the time of his frustrations with grocery shopping, they were tinkering with a new system built (by someone else) to transmit text onto TV screens using telephone lines. He added a computer to that mix for processing transactions. That led to practical e-commerce. History would have unfolded differently if he hadn’t been an inventor toying with TVs and computers and telephone lines.

Therefore, remember —

Expertise, knowledge, and an active attitude must prime your mind for it to recognize and make use of insight.  

At this point, I must add that simply crossing the three signatures off of a checklist isn’t enough. There’s more to finding and recognizing insights. To that end, let me give you some words of caution.

Without heeding these words, the already monumental task of distilling insights becomes even more complicated and prone to mistakes. In a world filled with noise, these words will help you separate insights from everything else.

To that end, we will use a famous incident from 1986. Bear in mind that I have heavily abridged the history we will use to continue our conversation. I have also simplified (probably oversimplified) the science behind the incident.

Fantastic Mr. Feynman

The year was 1986.

At 11:38 am ET on January 28, freezing morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA launched its Challenger space shuttle for the tenth time. Overall it was the twenty-fifth instance of space shuttle flight.

About 73 seconds into its skyward journey, Challenger disintegrated, killing its crew of seven.

The disaster brought the space shuttle program to a 32-month hiatus pending an autopsy of the incident. The US Government set up a commission comprised of eminent individuals with two objectives —

  • CAUSE: Review the circumstances surrounding the accident and establish the probable cause or causes of the accident
  • REMEDY: Develop recommendations for corrective or other action based upon the commission’s findings and determinations.

One incident from the commission’s inquiry went viral — well, as viral as you could go in 1986 before going viral became commonplace. Here’s the incident on tape —

Dr. Feynman’s O-ring Demonstration

The man in the video above is Dr. Richard Feynman, the famed physicist. He was one of the members of the commission, and arguably the only one without an agenda. In this video, filmed during one of the many public hearings of that commission, he showed, using a clamp, a pair of pliers, and ice-cold water, how a rubber ‘O-ring’ failed under low temperature.

The O-ring was a component of the shuttle’s booster rocket. Its function was to prevent the hot gases generated due to of burning rocket fuel from leaking through the joints in these rockets. The O-rings directed the gases to nozzles at the rocket’s end by sealing these joints, thus propelling the shuttle at launch.

These O-rings were a ‘Criticality 1’ component. That meant that there was no backup in the event of their failure, and the launch would result in disaster. That’s precisely what transpired on that cold January morning in 1986.

In typical Feynman fashion, the inimitable scientist identified the prime suspect behind the Challenger disaster and demonstrated it in a dramatic public display of ‘science solving complex puzzles’.

Much like Archimedes’ famous discovery, an ‘Aha!’ moment inspired Feynman’s public experiment. It transpired during a telephone call he had with General Donald J. Kutyna of the US Air Force.

The General was also on the commission, and Feynman recalled their conversation in his memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think?

[...] he says, "I was working on my carburetor this morning, and I was thinking: the shuttle took off when the temperature was 28 or 29 degrees. The coldest temperature previous to that was 53 degrees. You are a professor; what, sir, is the effect of cold on the O-rings?"

"Oh!" I said. "It makes them stiff. Yes, of course!"

The incident above has all the signatures of an insight —

  • It told (well, reminded, really) Feynman something fundamental about how the o-rings worked (or didn’t work).
  • It delivered a gut punch to him.
  • It spawned the idea of the public demonstration you just saw in the YouTube clip.
  • And, that demonstration made the nightly news (the equivalent of going viral in those days).

And yet, it does not represent an insight.

In Feynman’s case, the insight came later in the form of the two-line ending to an assessment (the famed Appendix F) he wrote on NASA’s failures leading up to the Challenger Disaster —

For  a  successful  technology,  reality  must  take  precedence  over  public  relations,  for  Nature  cannot  be  fooled.

The insight above resulted from his untiring investigation and not a singular ‘Aha!’ moment. He was the only commission member who talked to the engineers and the people on the shop floor at NASA’s laboratories, painstakingly collecting evidence.

As he went about his inquiries, he realized that while the first objective of the commission, identifying the cause behind the Challenger Disaster, was necessary, its second objective was far more paramount.

Why? Because in operations as complex as developing, building, and launching a space shuttle, things could go wrong in a million different ways. Therefore, a systemic remedy was vital to avoid future disasters.

He found out how NASA management ignored warnings from its engineers and contractors, glossing over critical scientific criteria to boost the government’s (and ultimately, the taxpayers’) confidence in NASA.

The O-rings were the specific physical cause of the disaster. Still, the origins of Challenger’s disintegration lay in the disconnect between management and engineering — a matter of communication and ethics.

Because of this, when you read Feynman’s insight, it doesn’t tell you anything specific about the shuttle itself or how to make it. But it gets you thinking about the role of ethics in complex operations.

These lines deliver a fundamental truth about the systemic ‘whole’ (e.g., a successful technology) instead of hard facts about specific ‘parts’ (e.g., the O-rings). That, more than anything, is the hallmark of an insight.

An insight observes the systemic ‘whole’ over the specific ‘parts’.

The Strategist

In addition, Feynman’s adventures in the commission bring three things about insights to my mind. You can consider them as the words of caution I mentioned in the previous section.

  • An insight is more than ‘Aha!’

Too often, we confuse insights with the ‘Eureka!’ or ‘Aha!’ moments — a sudden onset of deep understanding, sometimes doing something unrelated — the stereotypical ‘insight while bathing, or taking a dump’.

If you look back at the research on insights over the last 100 years or so, you will find many researchers enamored with serendipity. True, many insights occur by way of these mind-numbing epiphanies, and an ‘Aha!’ may often mark the culmination of the insight process. However, that is not the only way insights emerge. And, the epiphany itself is not necessarily the insight.

So ingrained is this idea of suddenness that it appears in the dictionary entry as well. Recall the meaning of insight in British English. In the case of real-world insight, the American English definition provided here is more relevant. It’s a minor lexical difference, but it matters in practice.

Gary Klein, the famed research psychologist, explained the difference between an ‘Aha!’ moment and insight thus —

Aha is to insights as orgasms are to conception. 

In both cases the experience is more noticeable than the achievement, but the experience doesn’t guarantee the achievement, and the achievement can happen without the experience.

  • An insight is more than an idea

Think back to Aldrich’s frustrations with grocery shopping. His insight was consumer access to corporate information over a virtual network — information like inventories (eggs, cornflakes, margarine et cetera), locations (TESCO, Greggs, Morrisons et cetera), prices, et cetera.

His insight wasn’t about delivering groceries (that was but one idea that instigated the whole thing) or about delivering any goods, for that matter, to one’s doorsteps (other ideas were already prevalent). But it did result in the many many ideas that make up the e-commerce industry as we know it today.

What does it mean in the context of insights, ideas, and the distinction between the two?

An insight inspires ideas, often fundamentally changing the way you operate. It is not an idea itself. An idea, on the other hand, stands alone as one of many applications of an insight. You have it, you implement it, and that’s the end of it.

And yet, a lot of us confuse insight with ideas.

It follows from the first caution we just discussed. Because we reduce insights to ‘Aha!’ moments of serendipity, and because ideas also often result from such moments, we fail to distinguish between the two.

If you are faced with making a distinction, just remember the below gem from Phil Dusenberry —

Insights as opposed to ideas. There's a difference. 

Ideas, valuable though they may be, are a dime-a-dozen in business. [...]

Insight is much rarer — and therefore more precious.

  • An insight is more than virality

ONE — Virality can prematurely end the insight process.

Imagine if Feynman had stopped after his demonstration. He would have fallen short of a really impactful insight, one that was significant for NASA, but more importantly, one that echoes to this day.

You can find immediate applications of his insight in the cases of Enron, Theranos, and any other firm that has seen collapse by way of ethical lapses. Any technology firm or startup can embrace it as a directive principle for its strategy, a talisman if you will.

TWO — Virality can also become a distraction, or worse, a bug.

For example, many insights can be soundbites, but not all soundbites are insightful. Soundbites, analogies, and anecdotes — the usual vehicles of insights — can sometimes be grossly misleading. If you have been following our pumpkingrams here on the blog, you have read some examples already (remember walls and windmills?).

How, then, to protect yourself from misleading virality? If you have been reading The Strategist, you already know the answer — Hairy Green Balls.

In addition, there is a more general principle of foolproofing the recognition of an insight — consider the three signatures in conjunction with the words of caution, and emphasize systemic ‘wholes’ over specific ‘parts’.

When it comes to insights, the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts.

The Pursuit of Insight

Whether you are a founder, a leader, or an innovator, you face three universal challenges —

  • Molding the Mission — How do I stand for something and stay relevant?
  • Breaking the Parity — How do I achieve sustained competitive advantage?
  • Moving the Needle — How do I make a measurable impact on my business?

These challenges are the same today as they were yesterday. However, their scope has changed (e.g., the needle is not just about the bottom line anymore — think sustainability). It will keep on changing as the priorities of an increasingly connected and fragile world evolve.

In such a world, where the half-lives of innovation, attention, and consumption are rapidly decreasing, insights hold the key to solving the three universal challenges. No wonder then that insights and their purveyors are in significant demand.

An indicator of that is the frequency of this word’s use. Here’s the trend for the use of the word insight in the corpus of English books sampled by Google —

Usage of the word Insight in English corpus published since 1800
What is an ‘Ngram’?

Word or phrases — e.g., ‘kindergarten’ is a unigram whereas ‘child care’ is a bigram.

What is an Ngram chart?

Trends in usage of an ngram of a particular length (i.e. unigram, bigram, et cetera) as a percentage of all ngrams of that length contained in Google’s sample of books of the ngram’s language.

American vs. British Ngrams

Trends may differ dramatically for English ngrams when observed separately for American English and British English. Here, the trends for insight are shown for the entirety of Google’s sample of English corpus regardless of its origin.

However, the overabundance of signals and the cacophony of viral messaging masquerading as something profound will make the job of finding rare gems of insights ever more complex. That is the challenge we seek to address here at The Strategist.

Much like Phil’s book, The Strategist is a blog about insights in business — how to get them, how to recognize them, how to keep them coming.

Our mission is to help founders, leaders, and innovators consistently discover compelling insights.

The Strategist

In deference to our mission, we have discussed much in this post about insight and how to recognize it. Here’s the essence of that discussion, your Insight Recognition Checklist

  • Insight is a clear & penetrating understanding — it observes the systemic ‘whole’ over the specific ‘parts’.
  • Insight delivers you a gut punch — it changes your worldview irreversibly.
  • Insight goes viral — it takes the form of pithy soundbites, memorable maxims, powerful analogies, or moving anecdotes, but not all such constructs are insights.
  • Insight induces bias for actions — it spawns ideas but it’s bigger than those ideas.
  • Insight is more than an ‘Aha!’ moment — ‘Aha!’ is to insights as orgasms are to conception.

Now that we understand the anatomy of insight, our next milestone on this safari is the origin of insight. We will cover that in our next post in this series titled Blowing Stuff Up!, coming your way next week.

Until then, and after that —

Stay Tuned, Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish!