I was recently talking with a colleague who works in the marketing department of one of the world's largest consumer goods companies. He shared his dismay at the results of an internal audit they had conducted of all of projects completed within the previous year. Of all this work, only 15% of it was deemed to have reached any level of insight. Just 15 percent!
Let me put this in perspective: some of the world's top marketers, graduates from the world's top MBA programs, could not produce more than a handful of new, insightful perspectives. "How could this possibly be?" he wondered out loud to me.
The only way I could console him was to say that based on our interactions at Jump with a number of the Fortune 500 companies, his findings were not out of the ordinary.
The actual insights a company comes up with seems to be inversely proportional to the number of times they use the word insight.
So why are there so few insights to be had? Given that our access to information as a society has dramatically increased with the internet, how can it be that we so frequently lack new perspectives and synthetic thought?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights one of the big reasons we aren't coming up with insights very often: we're simply not paying attention to the world around us.
Our average attention span [has] halved in a decade, from 12 to five minutes, according to a study commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance. (And that was in 2008.) We miss almost everything; we text while we walk. What makes a person stand out now is the ability to look and keep looking.
Research just published by the MIT Media Lab used Google's facial-feature tracker to gauge our ability to distinguish between smiles of delight and frustration—vital, right? A frustrated smile uses different muscles than a happy one, and it lasts an average of 7.5 seconds, versus 13.8. Yet it's a coin toss whether we can tell the difference. We get it right only half the time. An MIT computer algorithm, by contrast, succeeds 92% of the time. It turns out the machine does what museum intervention would have us do. Rather than rush to a general impression, it zooms in, absorbing every detail. It sees what it needs to.
If we are losing our ability to even determine the mood of the people around us – our co-workers, family, bosses, neighbors, and customers – it's no wonder we frequently fall short of new insights. After all, insight literally means seeing by the mind. It seems logical that if we want to increase our ability to glean insights, we should start by seeing more. Not just looking, but actually taking the time to see everything that's around us.
Yale's School of Medicine has come up with a simple yet powerful way to help future doctors actually observe what's right in front of them:
A "museum intervention" is now mandatory at Yale's School of Medicine for all first-year medical students. Called Enhancing Observational Skills, the program asks students to look at and then describe paintings—not Pollocks and Picassos but Victorian pieces, with whole people in them. The aim? To improve diagnostic knack.
While we may never achieve the astute observational skills depicted in the TV show Psych, where tremendous observation skills are routinely mistaken as a psychic ability, even if we only observe 30% more of what goes on around us we'd learn a lot. That's no insight, just plain sense.
Photo from flickr.