Operationalizing Insight Problem Solving

July 23, 2019
July 23, 2019 Joe Britto

Reading Time: about 2.5 minutes

When Archimedes jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” he gave us the most famous example of the power of insight. Ever since, insight has been hailed as the way to develop innovative solutions to intractable problems.

But in our day to day work life how often to we turn to insight problem solving as an approach? “An approach?” Pamela Process might say, “I can’t determine when I have an insight. I’ll take it when it happens, but I’m not gonna last long in my job if I sit around waiting for inspiration to show up.”

And that makes sense. But what if we didn’t have to wait for the clouds to open and a voice to offer us a new way of thinking about a challenge? What if there were a way bake in opportunities for insight when we have a problem to solve?

That’s the focus of this blog. But first, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.

What is Insight Problem Solving?

Insight is that moment when we look at a problem and “see” the solution apparently out of nowhere. Incubation – the willingness to take a break from a problem – can help that process (it’s what Archimedes was doing when he took his bath).

The great thing about insights is that they take us to a different place. And though we can’t create that moment of insight on demand, we can create opportunities for insight to happen.

Starting in a Different Place

Psychologist husband and wife team Sarnoff A. Mednick and Martha T. Mednick, and more recently Simone M. Ritter have shown that the fuel for insight is cognitive flexibility – the ability to pivot our thinking quickly. It’s what we think of in six attributes language as flexibility of mind.

The value of flexibility of mind is that it allows us to start in a different place. And because we start in a different place we have a greater chance of ending in a different place – maybe even with an insight. So unlike waiting for a moment of insight, flexibility of mind asks us to make connections that create the space for insight to happen.

Creating Space for Insight with Flexibility of Mind

Flexibility of mind begins by realizing multiple valid solutions to a challenge are possible. Sure we can come up with one idea, but how do I know I’ve got the best idea? That’s the problem with only coming up with one idea: we can’t know. Is our one idea the only one we can think of? Is it “good enough”? so we go with it? But what if when we came up with our one idea we push on and come up with others? Not because we’re going to use more than one idea, but because more than one idea gives us options. And one of those options is to create a sandbox for insight.

But how does that happen?

Finding Connections: The Foundation of Insight

It happens because once we have multiple valid ideas we can now look for connections between ideas. To repeat, that doesn’t mean we’re looking to implement all ideas, we’re looking for the best parts of all ideas. Find that and our next task is to build an idea from the best parts of all valid ideas – what I call a revolutionary idea.

Mark Beeman a neuroscientist who studies the aha moment, flags two qualities that allow insight to happen: “inward looking” – as in not focused on the external world; and “not effortful” meaning we’re not trying to solve the problem.

While that can still leave us hoping insights happen, the act of looking for connections mimics both of those factors: we’re inward looking trying to find the connection, and finding the connection gives our brain a rest from trying to solve the “big” problem. That’s what insight’s doing in the incubation phase – it’s connecting ideas to arrive at that aha moment.

The Zen of Problem Solving

And though it might sound contradictory trying to connect multiple ideas can give us enough of a diversion to borrow or not borrow from those ideas. And that’s what gives rise to the revolutionary idea.

And if that sounds Zen, it’s because it is. The process of developing multiple valid ideas and connecting them is the grist for the mill to create a moment of insight.

It’s like the saying often attributed to William Faulkner when asked if he only writes when he’s inspired. “Yes,” he said, “I only write when I’m inspired. Luckily, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” What Faulkner’s telling us is we have it in ourselves to create the ground of inspiration.


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