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Oh no. Wait for it. Here it comes. That question. That pesky question I can’t seem to escape. Usually, it comes right after I’ve waxed passionately about something we call the NINA Principle—a Brandtrust mantra that serves to remind us, no insight, no advantage.
What’s An Insight?
At a conference in 2007, I spoke about the NINA Principle to a group of marketers and researchers. Sure enough, during the Q&A, someone from a giant house of consumer brands (one of our clients, in fact) confessed, “Our company has struggled to come up with a working definition of insight. We think we know what an insight is but honestly, we don’t have a good way of defining it.” Then, (here it comes) he asked, “Daryl, you’re an expert, what’s your definition of an insight?”
In 2008, one of our clients at a large pharmaceutical company lamented, “I used to go to work every day as a Market Research Manager. Then one day I came in and was told my title and role had been changed to Insights Manager. Suddenly, I was expected to actually interpret data and provide strategic insights. That’s complicated, I’m not trained for it and I don’t know exactly what an insight is. Daryl, you’re an expert, what’s your definition of an insight?”
Last fall, an online network of several thousand marketers challenged the group with this query, “What is an insight and how do you know you’ve got one?” Their all-over-the-map responses confirmed insight is one of the most elusive terms in marketing. And in the interest of full disclosure I’ll confess that I lurked on the sidelines of that discussion, fearful that if I contributed, someone would ask, “Daryl, you’re an expert, what’s your definition of an insight?”
Hiding In Plain Sight
People tend to sense just how important insight can be, yet clearly struggle to define it. I don’t care for the question in the first place, because there’s something far more important than diddling around trying to perfect a definition. The much more useful question to answer is, “Why does it take years to realize strikingly simple answers to persistent problems?” How can it be that many of the greatest insights in history were discovered in plain view, right in front of us, where they’d been hiding for years? Why not put wheels on suitcases, let’s turn ketchup bottles upside down so the product flows, what is the source of infections? Insights might just as well be Leprechauns—mythical, mysterious, pot-of-gold wielding, impossible little devils we can’t find until they pop up in front of us, grinning.
This inherent elusiveness is all a bit strange because insights are certainly not new phenomena. We all have them. Even the earliest humans surely had many that made it possible for them, and us, to survive. I suspect this innate ability may be why we tend to take insights for granted. That is, until we’re asked to describe or define the term. Then we wrestle to articulate that they’re ideas, realizations, ah-ha moments, eurekas, epiphanies, and strokes of genius. You know, clever things that just pop into our heads.
In the midst of all this ambiguity, one thing is certain. Insights are discovered, revealed, realized, come to life, or pop up in only one place—the human mind. So, we definitely know where to look for them. (Oh, there’s an insight.)
The Unthought Known
When psychologists explain insight as an activity of the mind, they describe it as apperception—the grasping or integration of a new idea through previous perceptions and experiences. Another useful description is the elegantly simple psychoanalytic term “The Unthought Known,” that points out our brain stores knowledge non-consciously and simply doesn’t bother to share it with us until it decides to. One of our clients describes it as, “Knowledge that is retrospectively self-evident.” This is why having a great insight creates that feeling of epiphany, “Of course, I knew that!” All of which should help you feel secure that, even without a concrete definition, you’ll know an authentic insight when it grins at you.
Since insights are lurking, cloaked deep within our brains, our goal should be to become more mindful of how to uncover them. It’s more about awareness of how to flush them out than quibbling over a definition (although we are fond of “the unthought known”). We know what insights are. Now, we just need to stop thinking about them as mythical creatures and one-dimensional definitions. When you do struggle to recognize an insight, you can simply think of the NINA Principle and ask yourself, “Will we gain some advantage from knowing this?” If the answer is yes, it’s an insight. They say I’m an expert, but I’m asking you. What do you think an insight is?