Gaining insights: To see what other’s don’t

It’s fairly low-stakes, really.


Is Google Glass dead?

Are QR Codes dying?

Is SEO on death watch?

Sick to death of Content Marketing?

Let’s face it – ‘death’ in Advertising is prevalent, it has always been an easy way to grab trade headlines and to get an individual some stage time at industry events and conferences. When you sit down and think about it, the effortless attribution to death in the Advertising field is merely to sensationalise our very own career existence. Advertising is one of the very few professions one can embark in – a career that will never cause danger to lives or cost someone his/her life, neither it is a profession that requires you to risk your own life. Of course, there are few exceptions – like an ad folk who dies from overwork and exhaustion. Then you hear of unfortunate stories of someone taking their own life because of depression, caused by work stress. Nonetheless, these cases are very few and far between. Advertising is pretty much, dare I say, a low-risk, safe career choice. What’s the worst that could happen in a day? An unmet deadline? Consumer backlash on social media? A pulled ad? A very angry client?

Yet, everyone survives another day to ‘fight’ this invisible battle. Maybe a few bruised egos, but definitely no scars. No lives lost.

Getting through a workday.

A career in advertising is commonly known to be fast-paced and individuals in this field are required to be highly productive. Hence why we succumb to the fact that we often work more hours than we are paid . In a day, we journey through numerous work streams, often ending up at many crossroads and finding opportunities for both distractions and temptations along the way…bringing with us looming deadlines. We are inundated at various points of the day with moments when we need to make business decisions on behalf of our clients. And during such times, how can we be sure we are making any ‘good’ decisions? Many of us will never know – for a simple fact, the job we are in is pretty low stakes.

Lessons from those who make decisions in complex real-world settings.

To begin, it’s best we attempt to understand how others (outside our profession) actually make decisions in complex real-world settings – situations which have dynamic and continually changing conditions; uncertain and with ambiguous goals, with real-time reactions, time pressures and significant personal consequences for any mistakes.

Yes, I mean high stakes situations. And no, I wasn’t referring to the changing media landscape or the evolving consumer behaviour!

Think – a mountain rescuer, a fireman, a military commander, a hostage negotiator, an ER doctor. These professions (among many more), for example, demand best results at critical moments even if what’s ‘best’ may not be clear at that time. Decision making in these situations do not fit the typical process of making choices, considering alternatives, or assessing probabilities – which we have, as a luxury. Often, these people will act and react on the basis of prior experience; they were generating, monitoring, and modifying plans to meet the needs of the situations.

To take action, these people followed a simple rule: Performance = ↓ errors + ↑ insights. This is better known as the Naturalistic Decision-Making (NDM) framework and pioneered by Gary Klein. It takes the form as summarised below:

  1. These people usually relied on their ability to recognise and appropriately classify a situation.
  2. Once they knew how to react to this situation, imagery might be used to watch the option being implemented, to search for flaws, and to discover what might go wrong.
  3. If problems arose the option might be modified or rejected altogether and the next most typical reaction explored…I dare to say – almost like trial-and-error on ecstasy given time-pressures faced in these situations.
  4. This mental search continued until a workable solution was identified.

This NDM framework involves cognitive functions such as decision-making, sense making, situational awareness and planning –all of this taking into account: ↓ errors + ↑ insights.

Transferring this framework into the boardroom.

Gary Klein
Gary Klein – Presentation to LSE

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Gary Klein in person at London School of Economics. Discussing the NDM framework, he shared his thoughts on why he thinks most companies today only focus on reducing errors and not enough on increasing the value of insights. He believes many employees and people in management spend too much time looking for/at mistakes as everyone is playing not to lose. Lose here probably means avoiding the axe, it’s my guess.

Mistakes are tangible, visible even. Insights are not. Nobody cares if you ever missed an insight. There’s an old saying “what you don’t know, won’t hurt you“, right? To care, even slightly, is putting your head above the parapet. But if insights are not valued, there is no opportunity to make discoveries. And this is a big loss to businesses who operate in the shifting dynamic and competitive landscape.

Instead, many companies invest vulgar amounts of cash, time and energy to ensure mistakes are being reduced. We are no strangers to the rigorous company procedures that are put in place, careful (and constant) monitoring and reviewing processes, clear standards and critical thinking by proper documentation and identification to ensure logical conclusions and inferences are applied.

But as a believer in the importance of insights and am just curious by nature, I draw concerns to the overemphasis of mistakes which many companies are focused on. First, we may lose sight of anomalies. Tracking historical trends can mask disruptions which may help discover a root cause to a problem. Second, the tedious administration and effort required is a distraction. We no longer have the head space to see new patterns. In order to keep the business wheels turning, companies end up too goal fixated – even when faced with the best challenges, employees fail to revise their course.

This would be a good time to clarify that gaining insight is not accidental, neither is it intuition. There are no big ‘AHA’ moments. It is true – insights may be considered as disruptive, that they are disorganising. Insights may come without warning, take unprecedented forms and have the ability to open up unimagined opportunities. Insights now start to sound chaotic, right? And this, for many, is the fear of the ‘unknown’ and frightens large companies. Many companies say they value insights, but not many actually do insights. Insights take time to implement, requiring much more effort to make changes as it is both a mental and cultural shift.

Moving up the ranks in any company, you will find it harder for anyone in a senior position to dispute that predictability allows for effective management. Reinforced by minimal mistakes, perfection enables for effective management. Simple.

When faced with such situations, always remember this:

Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy and the easy is never good.

Break free: change the way you think. 

Know this – we are all flawed. The assumptions that trap us are the same ones we make unconsciously. We need to cultivate a way to see opportunities and possibilities from anomalies. Insights are critical for adaptation; insights are observations of phenomena.

Advertising and our clients are undergoing a period of change, particularly when business practices fluctuate and there are increasing rates of consumer patterns, both behavioural and attitudinal. Insights are more important now than ever before for any company to be smart, to succeed and to survive.

9 dots
Can you solve this?                                                                                          Solution:

Gary Klein suggests 3 ways to gain insights:

1. Broaden your perspectives. Increase exposure to ideas.

This is the most commonly practiced, as it is built on the understanding of relationships: IF, THEN. We use connections, adding coincidence, serendipity or curiosity into the mix to spot an implication and change how we think through the understanding of consequences. Be flexible, evolve, and improve your mental models. Develop an active mindset, driven by curiosity. You will see the world in a new light – seeing connections, noticing leverage points. And that, is always a good thing.

2.  Embrace disruptive thinking. 

Lean to accept contradictions. Find inconsistencies. We naturally want to discard new and fresh ideas because we hold onto our original beliefs and sometimes this causes friction. We rather cast it aside. Instead, use the inconsistency as a weak anchor to rebuild your story. Now, how does it inform everything else? Then create conditions around it, and start taking it seriously. Seize on conflicts, confusions and (sometimes) failures as openings for insights.

It is important not to fall into the trap of being too scientific. Most time is spent on coming up with the hypothesis and hoping the outcome answers the question, rather than identifying whether it is the necessary question to answer.

Might be a painful process to reframe what you had originally known, but the new perspective gained will be invaluable. The best thing we can do for ourselves is adapt – not just our plans and behaviours, but our thinking. Afterall, the evolution of the brain and intelligence is what sets humans apart from any other species.

For more in-depth view on this topic, I’ve written a blogpost here.

3. Be creative desperate. 

Be brave to change, to innovate. Try to escape an impasse. A brilliant example of this is Xerox. The company first started out selling printers and became so successful that in the 60s, the Xerox 914 was “the most successful single product of all time.” However as it stood, the business was not sustainable. Xerox was forced to keep increasing their productivity in order to make a profit. This was when Xerox quickly realised in order to create profits, they required a competitive advantage. In their efforts to keep the business fortunes, Xerox had to overhaul their business model – not by selling copy machines (at scale), but by selling copies: cheaper, faster and better quality than the competition. The company today stands at $21.59 Billion in revenue.

Gained Insights.

I will close with this: When you gain insights, you will finally enjoy seeing the world differently because as Gary Klein puts it, you see what others don’t. And that’s FINE by me.

No Insight vs Gained Insight
Traits of people who have insights

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