Insights: What Are They, Why Do They Matter, and How Do You Generate More of Them?


Defining “insights”

NLI’s research has found that organizations should be designing learning programs to maximize the insights that participants generate. Insight, here, is defined as that moment during which the learner goes from no-solution to solution — from “I don’t understand this” to “Aha! I got it!”

Insights are essential for sparking long-term learning because, as neuroscience research consistently shows, people feel motivated to engage in and complete tasks that feel internally rewarding. Leaders can create insights through telling effective stories and providing evidence that leads people to see things in a brand-new way.

OK. But in the modern moment, insights can’t happen virtually, right? It has to be an in-person concept, no?


At a program level, there’s usually one key failure around trying to generate insights: Failing to make learning social. Most learning programs are content to let participants walk out the door and not give material another thought until they return for the next session, if there even is a next session. This is a squandered opportunity to leverage the power of social learning.

The solution: To maximize recall, learning programs should engage participants’ social networks every week, encouraging them to share what they’ve learned with teammates, friends, and family. By connecting learning material to social interactions, participants link new ideas to the brain’s social memory network, resulting in better recall later on.

And, the effect of thinking other people might be watching you creates positive social pressure. When learning is social, learners encode more richly, recall more easily, and act more often.

At a more 1-to-1 level, employees and managers alike can grow through quality conversations. Try opening a dialogue with a direct report by discussing where they see their career in three years, or bounce some executive-level strategy off them and get their take. If you have a mix of in-person and virtual, adopt a “one virtual, all virtual” rule which means no people can be together, even if they’re in the same office. It cuts down on exclusion, clique-y behavior, side conversations, etc. and helps to make the at-home people (the virtual ones) feel less left out. Work on having quality meetings as well: memos to open and parallel processing review (everyone works on the same document for 10 minutes, then comes back to discuss it). Quality conversations and meetings help teams grow.

Overall, learn more about how to make virtual just as good — if not better — than in-person in terms of generating insights and productivity.

Here’s an oldie but a goodie from Talks @ Google with a lot of insights about, well, generating insights:

COVID as a period of greater insight

We know from research that insight is increased by fewer distractions. Wait, fewer distractions? Doesn’t at-home work create more distractions? In some ways, yes. But keep this in context: the “Hey, got a minute?” culture of in-office is responsible for about $588 billion of lost productivity per year. When you’re always getting pinged, you lose a lot of opportunity for insight. So while it’s not always comfortable to be taking simultaneous video calls opposite your wife, what is comfortable is that 2pm walk talking about work and kids and dogs and career, and what insights may emerge there that shape an organizations’ next step.

The brain science benefit: There have been calls from many, including Microsoft and JP Morgan, to say that the primary demerit of hybrid is “innovation will leave the building.” The problem with these statements is that they’re often assumptive and not rooted in experiments and data. Brain science has said for generations that autonomy helps drive innovation — we mentioned this in a 2009 article — and greater autonomy afforded in hybrid will drive it for organizations.

Learn more about our AGES Model, which drives long-term learning. AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing. It describes a learning style where people can focus on and engage with the content, experience positive emotions around it, and take breaks between lessons. When each component of AGES is optimized, we set the conditions for strong insights and better learning outcomes.

Insights and learning emerge from shifting one habit at a time

Our brains can only handle so much at once. At first, creating a new habit will require effort and practice. But over time, they’ll become second nature. The key is to take it slow. It’s like building a muscle; you’re likely to see more results—and stick with it longer—if you do a 10 minute workout everyday instead of a strenuous 1 hour workout once a week.

The more consistently we exercise our new habits, the more the learning is reinforced. Virtual learning programs enable us to space learning out in smaller chunks over longer periods of time to build strong and sustainable habits, one at a time.

Embracing the growth mindset

Growth mindset is the belief that one’s skills and abilities can be improved. People with a growth mindset regard ongoing learning as one of the goals of any activity. They focus on improving themselves, rather than proving themselves, and see mistakes as opportunities to get better, rather than as signs of incompetence. They set stretch goals, seek out feedback, and actively learn from others.

In teams and institutions with a growth mindset culture, leaders and employees alike emphasize sustained progress as opposed to flawless performance. They uplift one another, welcome new ideas, and strive to get better. All of this emerges from a foundational belief one has about any task, which is that it is possible to get better. It’s the difference between saying, “I can learn to cook if I try hard enough,” and saying, “I am not innately a good cook, so there’s no point in trying.”

At the Neuroleadership Institute, we’ve been researching the application of Growth Mindset in large organizations since 2016, and we’ve helped hundreds of leading institutions build this capability.

Adopting a growth mindset is not a panacea, but it can help us face them with more agility, creativity, and resilience.

For members: How does insight happen in the brain?

Active strategies for the restful moments needed for insight

  • Schedule frequent breaks and actually follow through (ditto for vacations)
  • Institute “speedy meetings” and put Parkinson’s Law to work—while you relax
  • Provide options for flexible and remote work approaches
  • Practice optimal inclusion to decrease inefficiency and conserve others’ time
  • Unplug completely at day’s end to decrease stress after hours
  • Leverage technology to work more efficiently
  • Carve out quiet reflection time at the end of team meetings

David Rock’s 2016 HBR piece on finding more insight

That can be found here.

Some notable parts:

  • As Jung-Beeman and colleagues point out in the Neuroleadership Journal, Thomas Edison would routinely let his mind wander hoping to capture fleeting bits of innovative thought. “He would then write down his thoughts during that period, in the belief that they were often creative,” they note.
  • In a recent study, scientists noted that positive emotions played an important role in the emergence of insight. Jung-Beeman also found in his own research that people who were in a better mood solved more word problems because they experienced more light bulb moments. The researchers also scanned the people’s brains during experiments, finding that a good mood altered brain activity and promoted an insight-friendly neural environment.
  • Taking a break from thinking about an issue may allow people to unravel their unconscious thought — hidden yet powerful cognitive processes that occur outside their conscious awareness. This oft-untapped resource is key to processing the deluge of information that a person needs to digest to make an insight-driven decision. Deeper — nonconscious — activity in the brain that is activated when we first consider a problem continues to stay active when we move on mentally to other tasks. We really do “keep working on things” unconsciously.  Another reason that not trying to solve a problem actively can work is that the source of an impasse to a solution involves being stuck in the wrong problem-solving strategy. We can’t have an insight while the wrong pathway is dominant in our mind.

What should you be asking employees about to generate more insights?

Ask about solutions, not problems.

Working through the “why” and “how” of issues instead of the more basic questions moves employees towards insight faster — and when you have limited time with them, across distance, this should be your goal.

And overall, asking questions about solutions, i.e. having a real two-way synchronous conversation on the business and the strategy and the long-term, increases reflection and raises a sense of status and autonomy in our brains. Telling? That decreases both. It’s about real conversations and moving employees to insight, as opposed to task-based check-ins.

As a manager, you want to bring your employees to have insights of their own, as opposed to telling them what to do and micromanaging them on tasks. When employees generate their own insights, it motivates and engages them. It also saves time for the manager.

Andy Grove, a founder of Intel, always said that the goal of a good manager is to make themselves unnecessary. While that’s terrifying to many managers (and our brains), it’s also very true. And if you move your employees to generate their own insights, they can act in your place on certain topics, which frees up time for bigger picture discussions and actions.

The bottom line on insights in modern work

We don’t need more micromanagers, order-demanders, and “tellers.” We need more managers who can drive real, two-way conversations, bring their employees to insight, give them autonomy over work, and free themselves up for bigger-picture thinking. We need more managers that understand the power of outcome-driven solutions, as opposed to surveillance-based practices. This could be a watershed moment for shifting our definition of what “management” is, and much of that shift is going to come from a manager’s role in driving insight, as opposed to more task lists.

If you’d like to know how Neuroleadership Institute can help, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Author: Ted Bauer

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