How to gain insight vs. gathering insights (3 of 4 parts)

What is obstructing our ability to gain insight? – or, how to get beyond “insights”

  1. People who work for businesses are rewarded for having a point-of-view, not for examination of their point-of-view

Daily, business people and marketers toss around concepts we think we know something about. Elements of the human condition, elements of relationships with ourselves, one another, etc.—it doesn’t matter how deep the topic, in business, there’s a premium on looking as if it is fully understood. Search-and-destroy-insights-gathering is rewarded, musings are jammed into action items, and cases are built for the next piece of work to be sold.

Playing the confidence game, there is a premium on how absolutely sure one looks, how impressive the proof appears. In the end, all parties feel very assured about said take on these concepts, and buy into the “insights” surrounding them—enough to leverage them in a projects and eventually spend millions of dollars triggered off them.

In academia, by contrast—“I don’t know” is a common response to questions. Their sphere understands that with each learning comes a thousand unanswerable questions. They might study and research on a single concept over a lifetime and not display the hubris that folks in business proclaim after days or weeks of study.

Yet hubris seems required—responding to a question in the business realm with “I don’t know” sucks the air out of the room—threatening the security blanket of surety. But how confident should we really be in our own understanding of these concepts? How much do our musings truly reflect the opinions of those we are trying to represent?

To know the answer to that, we must think about how often we examine these concepts—and how often those concepts are expanded on, broadened, and challenged.

“We should take a hard look at the concepts that we use every day and think we use clearly— that we think we all understand and see eye to eye on—and see if they really are as clear and rational as we think they are, or if there’s more, or less, to them than meets the eye” – Christopher Phillips, author of Socrates Café

Mr. Phillips is championing the idea that examination of views is the only way in which to create real understanding of the concepts we think we know something about. He pursued examination in the vein of his favorite philosopher, Socrates—never accepting anything at face value, never accepting a question as thoroughly settled, always eliciting another point-of-view.

This inspired Phillips to begin community-based, non-academic discussions groups in cafes, libraries, and public spaces. In the groups, Phillips created an arena for challenging, expanding upon, and dissecting commonly-held beliefs, values, and concepts that make us human. He took the kind of deep conversation typically found in higher learning institutions, and turned it out into the streets. He opened up a venue in which people could learn from each other’s different perspectives—not just to understand others in a deeper way, but understand the limits of their own thinking.

2. Our personal bias inevitably gets in the way of gaining deeper insight

The frightening genesis of our claim to knowledge in most concepts is personal experience, or the experience adjacent to our lives (“focus group of one”!). Our peripheral is hardly examined, and anything beyond it can remain entirely unexamined. Our understanding of central human issues is shaped almost completely by our own point-of-view, or by the points-of-view of those we have most interacted with.

Even the ‘founding father of psychoanalysis’ Sigmund Freud was not immune to such bias, saying “I always find it uncanny when I can’t understand someone in terms of myself.” How are the men and women who work in business to avoid applying the same damaging lens in their work?

The answer is to expose ourselves to as many different perspectives as possible, on a regular basis. Not the kind of ‘different perspectives’ that come from colleagues, friends, family, or friends of friends, as those perspectives (while not exactly our own) come from people who are in our circles and therefore have some major similarities to us. Whether similar jobs, economic status, politics, family situation, religious beliefs, etc.—we are most likely to be connected to those we have things in common with.

But ask a teenager about what “freedom” means, and you’ll get a different answer than from a defense attorney. Ask a teacher what “achievement” means, and you’ll get a different answer than from a recovering alcoholic. Ask a police officer what “respect” is, and you’ll get a different answer than from an elderly person.

Exposure to totally different viewpoints means what you thought you knew begins to shift, shake, and snag.

“You are better able to determine what you do know—what stands up to rigorous scrutiny—and what you do not know. You become aware of the existing limits of your knowledge… reflective examination, among other things, can show us that some errors stem from inaccurate knowledge, others from faulty reasoning, and still others from careless use of language” –Christopher Philips

There are millions of different outlooks on the concepts we use daily, the building blocks of humanness. There is no consensus “right” answer—nor need there be. Unlike “insights”-searching, in which generalizations can pull all experiences and purviews together into a single (unassailable) premise, examination allows for a holistic and nuanced view of concepts, from which better insight into people can be derived.

3. Clients are also holding back the ability to gain insight (but not in the way one might think)

As Phil Adams said in a recent presentation at Google, “The means become the answer.” In that talk, he was speaking specifically about how the known output of advertising agencies (ads) irrevocably bends any solution toward an advertising-based one.

But is there another “means” that can unwittingly become a predetermined solution?

If clients regularly engage in work with a business, their goals are embedded in the minds of the creative partners. We immerse ourselves in their product, needs, and business interests to better serve them—and yet—these client interests can corrupt our ability to gain a true understanding of people, perhaps more than any other factor.

There is a danger of predetermining the consumer needs and interests based on the client needs and interests.

Internalized client needs become a context that can interfere with the ability to see people’s real needs. And when this does happen, it can produce erroneous results. No illustration brings this to life better than the story of a consultant from the 1950s, whose job it was to conduct and sell “insights” into female consumers. It might sound familiar.

It is well-documented that white, middle-class women in the 1950s suffered from what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name.” Completely stifled as people, these women were struggling to conform to the ideal of feminine perfection that would later become the infamous image of the “Stepford Wives.” Yet when called into focus groups, women declared their happiness in the caregiver role for husbands and children, affirming they had no ambitions of their own, and research reports would have said the same. But women’s claustrophobia was bubbling under the surface, driving housewives to breakdowns—and worse.

It required insight into people to see their real feelings—but that was not what this particular consultant exercised:

“ ‘Most of the manufacturers we deal with are producing things which have to do with homemaking. He wants to sell pie mix. The woman has to want to stay in the kitchen. The manufacturer wants to intrigue her back into the kitchen—and we can show him how to do it the right way… If we tell her to be an astronomer, she might go too far from the kitchen. We liberate her need to be creative in the kitchen.’ ” (Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, emphasis mine)

Obviously, this example of client-interest-driven “insights” seems egregiously bad today. Now that the crisis women went through is apparent, it seems blind and deaf to see real ads proclaiming “This is the life!“(woman standing in front of her refrigerator) and “Meet my kitchen sweetheart!” (woman with small appliance). Today, no one would proudly display this work as meaningful insight into women—instead, we are able to see clearly what was missed.

But how often is our vision into people blurred by client bias today? Whether due to time constraints, a client’s demand, etc.—how often do we place our consumer only in the context of the client need or product? Fairly often. Therefore, the “insights” that businesses find are tailored toward understanding the consumer primarily within the context of the selling challenge. It is our job to sell, but it’s easy to see how we might be missing a great deal by focusing mostly or exclusively on our own interests.

And yet, what right-minded client would put up money for research with no pre-determined role in directly moving a business goal? Very few, if any.

But when you think about it, it’s not necessarily the client’s role to facilitate a creative partner’s broader understanding of people outside of their product or category (by paying for it or asking for it). But it IS part of our role as creative partners to ”understand people”: and if we say it, it is our collective responsibility to uphold that promise. By gaining a deeper knowledge of the people whose opinions we say we represent, we can become more insightful people, and all of our work will benefit.

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