Boost Performance with Creative Insights

Leaders may inadvertently suppress their people’s creative insights. While bragging about their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, these bosses may fail to notice that company systems discourage creativity. This ingrained, often invisible problem has an adverse side effect: It can diminish profits.
Improving performance for long-term success requires a two-pronged managerial approach: Focus on reducing errors while increasing creative insights.
Most managers concentrate on reducing errors: the obvious half of the equation. They know mistakes are visible, costly and embarrassing.
But many managers forget about the second step. Businesses cannot surge ahead in the marketplace without creative insights
4 Stages of Creative Insights
When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. ~ Gary A. Klein, PhD, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (PublicAffairs, First Trade Paper Edition, 2013)
Research into how the brain solves problems and generates “aha” moments has helped us understand the best ways to stimulate creative insights.
British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a four-stage process in his 1926 book, The Art of Thought. He asserted that creative solutions appear sequentially:
Preparation => Incubation => Illumination => Implementation
Psychology professors John Kounios and Mark Beeman tweaked the formula in The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain (Random House, 2015):
Immersion => Impasse => Diversion => Insight
We must step back and painstakingly observe a problem (immersion), examine perspectives and context, reinterpret the familiar, become aware of unfamiliar and unseen relationships, and question assumptions and biases.
If you reach an impasse, stop seeking answers. Seek a change of scenery, and give your brain a rest (diversion). Your subconscious will continue to make remote associations and connect ideas during an incubation period. Insights will materialize, accompanied by feelings of certainty and an emotional thrill.
7 Places to Find Creative Insights
A November 2014 Harvard Business Review article (“Where to Look for Insight”) defines insight as “an imaginative understanding of an internal or external opportunity that can be tapped to improve efficiency, generate revenue, or boost engagement. Insights can be about stakeholder needs, market dynamics, or even how your company works.”
Most of us can adopt a mindset that facilitates creativity and insights. The authors of the HBR article urge readers to explore seven key areas:

  1. Anomalies: Examine deviations from the norm. Do you see unexpectedly high or low revenue or share in a market or segment? Surprise performance from a business process or a company unit?
  2. Confluence: Find macro trend intersections. What key economic, behavioral, technological or demographic trends do you see? How are they combining to create opportunities?
  3. Frustrations: Pinpoint deficiencies in the system. Where are customer pain points for your products, services or solutions? Which organizational processes or practices annoy you and your colleagues?
  4. Orthodoxies: Question conventional beliefs. Are there assumptions or beliefs in your industry that go unexamined? Toxic behaviors or procedures at your company that go unchallenged?
  5. Extremities: Exploit deviance. What can you learn from the behaviors and needs of your leading-edge or laggard customers, employees or suppliers?
  6. Voyages: Learn from immersion elsewhere. How are your stakeholders’ needs influenced by their sociocultural context?
  7. Analogies: Borrow from other industries or organizations. What successful innovations do you see applied in other disciplines? Can you adapt them for your own use?

Fixation Thinking
Albert Einstein is reported to have said that if you gave him an hour to solve a problem, he’d use the first 55 minutes to consider if it was the right problem.
A problem typically leads to an impasse because you’re asking the wrong question. When you focus on misleading features, you risk going down rabbit holes. We need to become aware of the mental traps that cause us to fixate on the wrong problem.
Mental Training
Studies have shown that even thinking about unusual people or events primes the brain for creativity. On the other hand, thinking about conformity, rules and the way things are usually done enhances analytical thinking.
Achieving psychological distance – even if it’s only imaginary – increases insightfulness. Try to think about the big picture, the 30,000-foot view.
Environmental Influences
Kounias and Beeman believe your environment can promote a brain state that’s amenable to “aha” moments.
Creative insights and valid intuitions are characterized by:

  1. Remote associations
  2. Broad, flexible attention
  3. Abstract thought
  4. Positive mood
  5. A sense of psychological distance
  6. A promotion orientation

Some studies show that expansive surroundings (high ceilings, a view) allow greater creativity and broaden attention. The ideal environment for creative thinking is open, airy, rounded and calm.
Change everyday routines. Interact with diverse people and situations. Nonconformists can be strange, but their creative thinking is contagious. Being around them primes the brain for enhanced insightfulness.
8 Tips to Enhance Insightfulness
The threat of a deadline narrows your thinking and restricts ideas. Frequent breaks and long periods of incubation are likely impractical, but finding ways to maintain a creative mindset is paramount.
Try the following strategies to enhance insightfulness:

  1. Periodically consider your larger goals and values, and how you can promote them.
  2. Reserve time for long-range planning and creative daydreaming.
  3. Cultivate a positive mood by thinking about the people and things that bring you joy.
  4. Schedule vacations that will stimulate creative thinking.
  5. Do something new. Take up a new hobby, or delve into a topic unrelated to your occupation.
  6. Walk, run or engage in another physical activity to promote brain growth.
  7. Meditate and disengage periodically.
  8. Get ample sleep to rejuvenate brain cells, improve associative thinking and consolidate memories.

The Creative Power of Questions

Asking creative questions can change everything. A big, beautiful question can generate ideas, inspire action, influence engagement and participation, as well as solve problems and spark creative genius.
Provocative questions can answer most conundrums of life and work. Einstein allegedly said that if someone gave him one hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes making sure he was answering the right question.
In business, we don’t ask enough questions for fear of appearing stupid or uninformed. Or we don’t want to challenge authority or be disruptive. But research is showing that there are many kinds of questions and, asked in the right way, they can lead to breakthrough thinking and disruptive innovations, such as those created by Airbnb, Uber, Pandora, Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iPhone and many others.
The Creative Process
Let’s explore some of the questioning frameworks people use to find creative solutions:

  1. 4 Stages: Nearly a century ago, the British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a four-stage process of creativity. In his 1926 book The Art of Thought, Wallas observed that creative solutions appear sequentially:

Preparation => Incubation => Illumination => Implementation
This creative process is still used today in many research and innovation companies.

  1. 5 Whys: The “five whys” methodology originated in Japan with Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. Asking “why” five times in succession is a means of discovering the root of a particular manufacturing problem. But this can be applied to many areas, including behaviors. People are inclined to look for the easiest, most obvious explanation for a problem, so asking “why” five times leads to understanding a problem fully.
  2. Contextual Inquiry: When you ask questions up close and in context, using observation, listening, and empathy, you are likely to get a better understanding of user experiences. This means going beyond the office and spending time with customers to find out what they really care about.
  3. Connective Inquiry: One of the ways to find new ideas is to connect existing ideas in unusual ways. This is also known as “combinatorial thinking.” One successful example was when Frederick Rueckheim observed the popularity of candy, peanuts and popcorn and created Cracker Jacks , adding a small prize to each box in 1913.
  4. Collaborative Inquiry: It’s never been easier than in today’s interconnected world to ask for help with ideas and creative solutions. Many of the most recent start-ups are using this access to a diverse world to achieve speed, flexibility and ingenuity that would never have been possible even ten years ago.

The Why, What If and How of Creative Questioning
The ability to ask “why” has sparked innumerable inventions.
Author and journalist Warren Berger writes about this in A More Beautiful Question, a fascinating book illuminating the power of questions that lead to innovations. He outlines a framework of three sequential questions to spark the creative process:
Why? => What if…? => How might we…?
Ask “Why” and “What If”
The “why” stage is about stepping back and observing, to see and understand more fully what’s going on. Notice what others may be missing. Don’t ignore incongruencies. Investigate them. Challenge assumptions. Question the questions being asked and ask a new question.
To question well – in particular, to ask fundamental “why” questions – we need to stop doing, stop knowing and start asking, which makes most people uncomfortable. We don’t want to ask, “Why are we doing this, exactly?” We don’t want to slow down a meeting, or appear stupid.
The problem is that we are prone to act out of habit, unquestioningly. The pressure to keep moving forward is everywhere. It’s difficult to admit our common human condition of thinking we know more than we do. The ego protects itself by gravitating toward feelings of certainty. In that state of mind we’re unlikely to ask questions.
Being comfortable with not knowing is the first part of being a good questioner. Asking naive questions without feeling self-conscious is not easy to do. A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while an expert’s is not.
Even if you don’t yet know “how,” it’s important to ask “why” and “what if” questions. Yet even when people do ask questions, they’re often relying on assumptions and biases.
“Every time you come up with a question, you should be wondering, What are the underlying assumptions of that question? Is there a different question I should be asking?” ~ Robert Burton, On Being Certain
Ask “How”
The “how” stage tends to be a slow and difficult part of the creative process. It’s marked with failures which don’t always feel good or beneficial. To act on an idea, narrow down the possibilities and commit to finding a way to materialize it.
Sharing and feedback are a critical part of this stage. Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to get prototypes made and reviewed. In the future, if 3-D printing becomes widely available and affordable, this might become even easier and faster.
A Culture of Inquiry
It’s happening already. We’re expected to quickly adapt to using new and unfamiliar tools every day. The technology is always changing and there are never clear instructions.
Like it or not, we are expected to adapt– now. The future is here. Most of us need to ask better questions and become better experimenters. If you’re uncomfortable asking questions, talk with a professional coach.
The best coaches, managers, consultants and therapists seem to agree: there is no substitute for self-questioning. The most important help an adviser can give is to suggest asking provocative questions, both of yourself and of others. It might be helpful to engage in “question-storming,” that is, brainstorming to generate better questions instead of ideas.
What do you think? How often are you willing to ask creative questions?