How to gain insight vs. gathering insights (2 of 4 parts)

Why reclaiming insight is a worthy aim– or, why I wrote this lengthy blog post

And yet, insights seem to have been a victim of the noblest intentions. I still believe in those intentions: it’s a worthy aim to try and represent the consumer with care, to have business more carefully consider the needs and wants of people who use their product or service and make decisions accordingly. This should not only help people, but help business be more relevant and therefore profitable as well.

In writing this, my journey has led to explore how I perceive insights, how I perceive consumers, and certainly, how I perceive myself. To be sure, much ink has been spilled in a vibrant blog discourse about the weakening of insights, and I know I am hardly the first to discuss it (I cite some of these thinkers here in the text). I have found the discussions to be very stimulating—and yet solutions to such systemic problems are hard to come by. It’s tempting to look to procedural solutions (new creative briefing documents, client process changes, etc.), but working for change within any current system can be limiting.

At the end of this series of posts, I’ll talk about one effort that requires just a little elbow grease, applied outside of the system—from which I have grown immensely, and have elected to share in case such a thing might be beneficial for others.

On the important distinction between “insights” vs. “insight”

It’s not simply splitting hairs in etymology to define “insight” and “insights” differently. The most-cited definition of insights comes from the Random House Dictionary:  “an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding”. But there is a second, and much-less cited definition of insight: “penetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth.” This definition implies a need to go deeper than intuition, and describes insight more as ability than a thing to be captured.

That definition seems more accurate. After all, “insight” contains the word “sight”—vision, ability to see with acuity. Someone “insightful” is full of the ability to see: in other words, they have “penetrating mental vision” and a “faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth.” This second definition goes to the heart of a vision we want to have—but might rarely achieve, due to rapidly pursuing the next “insights” in service of the next sell.

A different way of thinking about insight (rather than insights) requires a ground-up understanding that is fundamental versus sought. It would be devoid of predetermined objective or purpose, devoid of a known tidbit needed to move the creative process forward. It requires leaving behind the usual tactics of skimming, gut-think, Googling, and generalizing. It would require a new approach.

“Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there. As opposed to reasoning by analogy. We get through life usually by reasoning by analogy which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach.” — Elon Musk

The term “physics approach” is defined online in mind-numbingly dense terms, but the basic premise is to work from the bottom up. Musk is railing against the derivative nature of top-down assumption (reasoning by analogy) in favor of the unblemished, bottom-up physics approach.

What if creative companies deployed the physics approach in our attempts to understand people? What if we moved from thinking-Googling-and-generalizing or surgically-striking to working upward from a deeper understanding of people that is more fundamental?

True, this sounds as overwhelming as “boiling the ocean.” Where does one begin to attempt to acquire such knowledge? The quest for deeper understanding of people can never be complete, but that does not make it an unworthy voyage to undertake, especially by the companies who claim to “represent the consumer” in our craft. It would not be a quest for answers, but rather, a quest for growth, in which there would be no final deliverable in-mind. Instead, the goal would be to deepen our understanding of people, in order to work from a more robust base of knowledge.

Before I talk about what that venture might be—I’ll discuss some of the considerations I had in developing it.


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