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What is Business Insight?

What is Business Insight?

Insight typically occurs when a solution to a problem presents itself quickly and without warning. It is the sudden discovery of the better solution following less effective or efficient attempts based on trial and error. Insight was first rigorously studied by Gestalt Psychology where some of the definitions of what counted as insight were seen to include: suddenly seeing the problem in a new way, connecting the problem to another relevant problem/solution pair, releasing past experiences that are blocking the solution, or seeing problem in a larger, coherent context.

Although there is little dispute about when insight occurs and even what benefits or value it provides (and is therefore much sought after in many walks of life) there is some disagreement about how and why it actually arises. In his 1926 book “The Art of Thought” the English psychologist Graham Wallas tried to define how insight occurs by suggesting that a four stage process is always at play. These were preparation (where we investigate a given problem), incubation (where the unconscious, as opposed to the conscious mind, works more on the problem), illumination (where insight almost bursts onto the scene) and finally verification (where the new insight is finally validated as being sound).

At face value, it is difficult to argue with Wallas’s four stage model – it seems to fit well with our initial determination of how insight works. However, if we look a little deeper, these apparently attractive stages are less compelling than they first seem. For example, many insights emerge with little or no preparation or incubation in some cases (with individuals often being able to come up with a “lateral thought” having had little contact with the problem previously) and even the fourth stage of validation is rarely a formal or extended one, as Wallas suggests. It seems we need a better model.

A modern US based psychologist, Gary Klein, has spent a considerable amount of time researching how insight occurs, not by trawling through much of the relevant literature but by looking at over 120 real accounts of insight and then looking for patterns. In his book on the subject, “Seeing what others don’t”, the diagram below summarizes what Klein found:

Gary Klein Performance Improvement Diagram

In the above diagram Klein determined that Insight occurs when an individual or a team is looking for performance improvement and cannot make the “leap” or level of performance they are looking for by reducing errors and uncertainties alone. In other words, insights will tend to occur not when we are trying to reduce error or waste or variation in existing processes but when we are looking for an entirely different approach or model to move forward (what the scientist Thomas Kuhn would have called “a paradigm shift”). Furthermore, Klein suggested that insight does not occur in stages but when one or more of five “triggers” occurs. These are: Contradictions, Connections, Coincidence, Curiosity and finally Creative desperation.

Klein usefully puts his new model into a further diagram that we can see below, which now suggests that there are three main paths to Insight with the specific trigger, activity and likely outcomes shown on the left:

Gary Klein Insight Diagram

Klein states that this is a more useful triple path model because connections, coincidences and curiosities are captured in the third path (shown in the middle column above).

Klein’s triple path model appears to much better fit how insight occurs in general by suggesting that insight  “springs” from not just one source – what Wallas called preparation, or what we might also describe as frustration with a current situation or creative desperation, but from three different possible sources. In so-doing he opens up the possibility of deploying all three pathways in encouraging more creativity, innovation and critical thinking and thereby shifting the balance to a greater amount of insight taking place. As Klein himself admits, this is only a start to this journey, but it is a step in the right direction.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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