In the fall of 1997, Dr. Andre Briend was having a perfectly ordinary breakfast at home when his gaze settled, just for a moment, on a jar of Nutella.
Something suddenly clicked in his mind, and a deadly problem he had battled for more than 20 years was solved.
In that instant, he had a revelation, a simple creative insight that continues to save the lives of millions of starving children in Africa. Briend felt exhilarated by the idea, yet at the same time, desperately regretted he hadn’t realized it sooner.
In his great remorse, he shared, “I felt as though I’d known the answer all along.”
When a hidden truth is revealed, it changes the way we think and how we see things. Once exposed, the hidden truth seems so obvious and creates the feeling that you knew it all along but had simply never thought of it.
Hidden truth leads to insight.
Insight inspires creativity, solves vexing problems, and improves our lives.
Yet, it often takes years to realize what turns out to be an astoundingly simple answer to a complex problem. When we do experience insight, it feels like a lucky accident, appearing suddenly, out of nowhere, in a flash of revelation – appreciated and celebrated but rarely understood.
How could it take more than 20 years to realize what turned out to be a strikingly simple answer to a profound problem? Even when so much is at stake and the answer is sought with conviction, passion and dedication?
How can it be that many of the greatest insights and ideas throughout history have been discovered in plain sight, right in front of us, where they’ve been hiding for years? Why is this amazing phenomenon so mysterious and random?
The Information Age has taken us to a place where we know less and less about more and more. Our capability to produce information now exceeds our ability to interpret it. We are just beginning to realize that we cannot default to data simply because they are so pervasive and accessible.
The need to discern insights from an ever-increasing morass of information is becoming more critical than ever.
Insights most certainly cohabitate with data, but rarely do they announce themselves. Data scientist Jeffrey Heer warns, “It’s an absolute myth that you can send an algorithm over raw data and have insights pop up.”
The truth we must grasp is that life-changing insights lie still and quiet below the din of data and everyday life until someone coaxes them from hiding.
Companies have long employed market researchers, whose jobs are to conduct studies designed to provide data about markets and customers. More recently, company executives have decided they need more than just data. Increasingly, they demand to know specifically what the data mean and how their businesses should respond.
Executives want insights that drive strategy. They want insights that solve problems. They want insights that inform what can be done to gain competitive advantage and drive results.
The True Nature of Insights
We think we know what an insight is. We are sure we’ll recognize one if we see it.
Yet, it’s odd that many professionals who trade in these priceless currencies understand very little about the true nature of insight, how it works, or where it can be found.
An online network of several thousand marketers challenged its group with this query: “What is an insight and how do you know you’ve got one?” The responses were all over the map and clearly confirmed creative insight is one of the most elusive things in marketing.
We tend to believe that realizing insight is a skill we’re born with, something we just do without thinking. We treat the ability to perceive insight in the same way we do common sense – we either have it or we don’t.
Realizing insight is indeed similar to common sense in an unfortunate way – as the old saying goes: “Common sense just isn’t that common.”
Insights are slippery, difficult-to-find little devils and, like Leprechauns, we don’t know how or where to locate them.
Our problem is that we just don’t think about insight very much. We take it for granted. That’s why we don’t have nearly as many breakthroughs as we could. It seems we could use better insight about how to find insights.
When we acquire a deeper understanding of the true nature of insights, and stop thinking about them as mythical creatures, we can more quickly and easily discover the ideas, concepts, revelations, innovations and meaningful changes that are made possible from insights.
When more and more of us are empowered with insight about insight, our ranks will inspire important and useful breakthroughs to occur with far greater frequency and impact.
We can truly accelerate the discovery of solutions while avoiding the regrets.
How do we ever hope to discover all the hidden truths we need to stay ahead? How can we feed starving children before it’s too late? How can we create competitive advantage in our businesses? What can we do to keep from blanking just when an idea is needed most?
The best place to start is with the realization that every innovation begins with an insight. No matter whether it appears over time from the fuzzy fog of random thoughts or in the flash of an “aha!” moment, innovation does not happen unless an insight occurs.
This is why it matters so much for us to understand the nature and mystery of insights, where they come from, how they work, and how to have more of them.
Columbus and the Egg
A first step in improving our ability to discover insights is to become aware of anything that hinders our efforts. We all have habits and biases that blind us. Deep mental ruts have us stuck in old thinking patterns and our conventional wisdom is rarely as wise as we think it is.
Closely observe your behaviors and you’ll be surprised to find nearly half of what you do each day is mindlessly similar and habitual. This mindless routine desensitizes us and tends to cause new insights and ideas to become invisible.
Walter Lippman famously observed, “For the most part we do not first see and then define, we define first and then see.”
In 1493, Cardinal Mendoza invited Columbus to dinner to celebrate his discovery of America. In spite of his achievement, some of the dinner guests were not so impressed, suggesting that anyone would have made such a discovery had they set out on a similar voyage.
Columbus heard this and decided to turn it into a teachable moment. Requesting an egg from the kitchen, Columbus challenged the naysayers to discover a way to make it stand up lengthwise on the table with no external support. It seems simple enough until you try it, and the diners failed at every effort to get the egg to stand on its own.
Columbus took the egg and tapped the end of it on the table, just enough to create a slight indentation in the end of the egg. Turning the notch to the bottom, he easily stood the egg in an upright position on the table.
Of course, the other guests scoffed and protested that anyone could have done what Columbus did.
To which, he replied, “The difference, my friends, is that you would have done it, but I have done it.”
We each have boundless possibilities in our everyday lives to realize insights that can inspire positive change – insights that enhance personal and business relationships, help us make and save more money, invent new products, advance our businesses and careers, create lifesaving breakthroughs in healthcare, express beautiful creative ideas, and figure out how to get an egg to stand on its end.
We just need to think intentionally about changing the way we think. Everyone routinely experiences small flashes of insight. Whenever you apply your mind to a challenge – solving a riddle, playing charades, or figuring out where you left your keys – you make use of the mental processes required for realizing insights.
This mental activity is more than a simple cascading of thoughts, “Where did I leave those keys?” “Where was I when I last had them?”
When that moment of realization occurs, that sense of knowing the answer – “Oh I left the keys on the kitchen counter!” – it is clear that something happened, something transformed in your mind.
Thinking About Thinking
Every discovery, breakthrough, invention or great marketing campaign begins as a glimmer of insight – the seed, the origin, the flash of revelation that precedes all ideas.
Albert Einstein famously said, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.” If necessity is the mother, then I would suggest insight is the father of all invention.
Whether the objective is making good grades, getting rich, creating a great ad, having a happy marriage, or inventing something as good as sliced bread, all require insight. Success hangs on our ability to discern things, adapt, and solve problems. Our innate ability to discern insight makes it possible.
Fortunately, your brain can produce endless possibilities. Since even a small insight can inspire big changes, it would be a terrible shame to miss out on your own special capacity to discern them.
You have the same chance as anyone to realize a way to improve an important relationship, invent something that makes you wealthy, come up with a process improvement at work that gets you promoted, or discover a small revelation that makes your life easier.
You may not believe you are creative, but whatever you do, don’t dismiss your ability to be resourceful and insightful. We all need to think of our abilities to realize insights as innate talents that each of us should nourish and nurture.
We think that we think about everything, but we don’t. Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that better than 95 percent of our mental functions are driven by non-conscious influences and automatic cues arising from the familiar patterns imprinted in our brains.
Ellen Langer, a distinguished Harvard professor of psychology, has devoted much of her life’s work to researching how people think. Her findings point to an obvious, though rarely realized, insight: If we don’t think to think about our thinking, we can’t update or improve it.
Langer’s research reveals that we can improve our idea output simply by being more mindful of how and what we’re thinking. She notes, “It’s a subtle change in thinking although not difficult to make once we realize how stuck we are in culture, language, and modes of thought that limit our potential.”
In one phenomenal study, Langer conclusively showed how elderly men who consciously thought and lived as if they were actually in a younger period of their lives experienced improved hearing, memory, and dexterity.
If we can actually think ourselves younger, then we can certainly think our ideas better. So, here’s a life changing insight hiding in plain sight – we will find insights if we simply look for them.
Looking for insights starts with a very basic first step – actively, intentionally thinking about them.
As Langer suggests, if we open up our minds, a world of possibility presents itself. This is not about revealing any kind of a magic formula, prescribing a patented process, or teaching a multi-step program for finding insights; it’s about preparing yourself to think differently, to be more aware and more intentional in your natural capability to realize insights.
As Thomas Kida warned, “The beliefs we hold are closely tied to the decisions we make. In effect, what we believe affects what we decide.” Changing the way you think, becoming ever more aware of the things that block you from discovering the hidden truths in your world, requires that you prepare to be mindful.
Mindfulness helps you see and appreciate the difference between what you think you know, what you really know, and what you would like to know. When you change the way you think, the things you think about change.
The Plumpy’nut Solution
Nutella is usually on Briend’s breakfast table, and he does not recall if any of the product’s history was going through his mind in that moment of revelation.
He does know that when his focus settled on this very common product, it provoked an epiphany and a thought he had never before realized simply popped into his head.
Neural patterns fired, fresh connections were formed, and Briend experienced an “Aha!” moment. After all those years of concerted work, in a sudden convergence of experiences and memories, stirred by a humble jar of Nutella, his brain reconfigured knowledge it already possessed into a new combination and revealed a powerful insight.
An overwhelming sense of exhilaration and confidence came over him; finally the solution that had evaded him for so long was within his grasp.
The idea that sprang from his mind was to create a mixture of peanuts, sugar, milk products, protein, vitamins, and minerals all whipped into a sweet, creamy, Nutella-like texture.
It made so much sense that Briend couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it long before. Grown widely, peanuts are plentiful in Africa and everything needed could be easily produced and transported, or mixed on-site.
The product Briend conceived of would make it possible to provide a nutrition-dense, ready-to-eat food substance that could overcome all the inherent problems and endure the harsh conditions in Africa.
The product development team wanted a name that was “American sounding” and in a brainstorming session, came up with Plumpy’nut.
Even though the team did not have the benefit of a high-priced professional naming agency, they came up with a wonderfully descriptive and memorable name. Briend was eager to field-test the Plumpy’nut and children from Malawi were chosen to be first to sample the product.
That first moment when the babies tasted Briend’s creation is forever imprinted in his memory. He told me the looks on their little faces expressed everything he needed to know. From the moment the children tried the product, it was abundantly clear they liked it and would happily eat it. The babies clearly loved the sweet, nutty flavor and the soft, easy-to-eat texture.
Briend confided, “That very first experience with the children was worth all the years I had invested.”
In The New York Times, journalist Andrew Rice described the experience of Dr. Mark Manary, a pediatrician working in the Malawi hospital where Plumpy’nut was first tried.
Manary recalled, “These kids are deathly ill, you’re doing whatever you can for them, and you think you’re on the right track, and then you come in the next morning and four of them have died.”
Manary emptied out the ward, sending his patients home with Plumpy’nut. Many malnutrition experts were horrified. “It seemed dangerous to them, and it made them afraid,” said Manary, who recalled that one eminent figure stood up at a conference and said, “You’re killing children.”
In fact, when the results were analyzed, it was found that 95 percent of the subjects who received Plumpy’nut at home made a full recovery, a rate far better than that achieved with inpatient treatment.
Since that first Malawi experience, Plumpy’nut has been widely distributed with extraordinary success. Thousands upon thousands of children have been saved in Africa and other disadvantaged spots around the globe.
The United Nations has declared Plumpy’nut the preferred treatment for severe malnutrition. In 2008, a crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes went to Africa to report on a region in Niger that had used Plumpy’nut to drop from the highest rate of malnutrition to the lowest within a span of two years. The region could previously treat only about 10,000 children per year, but by using Plumpy’nut nourished more than 120,000.
CBS reported that Dr. Milton Tectonidis, Doctors Without Borders’ chief nutritionist, said: “It’s a revolution in nutritional affairs. Now we have something. It is like an essential medicine. In three weeks, we can cure a kid that looked like they’re half dead. We can cure them just like an antibiotic. It’s just, boom! It’s a spectacular response.”
Thankfully, millions of children will survive the most preventable ravage of our time because Dr. Briend refused to stop searching and finally found the elusive insight that led to creating the nutty, lifesaving concoction with the funny name.
The Nutella Effect
Dr. Briend’s experience should serve as a lesson to all of us that we have to be more vigilant and relentless in our efforts to discover fresh insights.
We should strive to seek ideas that are compelling enough to influence how people feel about themselves, what they believe, and how they respond. Is it something that is important in people’s lives or as part of the culture? Will people find the idea useful and evocative? Will it change how they think and behave? Is the insight a hidden truth? Does it have the quality of “Oh, of course, I knew that, I had just never thought of it in that way?”
Were we able to think differently, a solution to infant malnutrition might have been envisioned much earlier. Researchers would have been more mindful and skilled at seeing the hidden truth and the simple brilliance of delivering sweet, peanut-flavored milk nutrients preserved in foil packets would have been realized dozens of years and thousands of lives sooner.