The slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day

Two months before the 9/11 attacks, FBI Special Agent Kenneth Williams noticed suspicious activity in Phoenix, Arizona. He spotted several Arab men taking flying lessons in the Phoenix area. The odd thing was, the men did not want to practice take-offs and landings. Special Agent Williams sent a letter to FBI HQ on July 10, 2001 warning about a possible terrorist mission. The leaders at FBI HQ found the contents of the letter to be so unusual that they opted not to act upon it. The letter was to become the famous “Phoenix Memo”.

You are an ideas man, Steve

Special Agent Williams spotted a contradiction: groups of men systematically obtaining flying lessons, without the takeoff and landing parts. This contradiction prompted an insight: potential terror event. How did Special Agent Williams connect the dots? How are insights triggered? This is the question posed by Gary Klein in his book “Seeing What Others Don’t”.

Self-indulgent title aside, this is a useful book. Klein attempts to break down the mystical pathway to those “light bulb” or “aha” moments when ideas are made or insights gained. Klein rebuts prior thinking on the topic and proposes an alternative “Triple Path Model” of insight.

Before Klein came a guy named Graham Wallas; socialist, co-founder of the LSE and all round freethinking intellectual. In his 1926 book, “The Art of Thought”, Wallas proposes a “four stage model of insight”. Wallas claims that insights are conceived through preparation, the act of investigating and analysing a problem, and incubation, the act of letting our unconscious minds take over. From incubation comes illumination,  when an insight appears in our consciousness, followed by validation, when we confirm an insight to be true. I certainly relate to this need for incubation. Seldom do ideas appear when we are agonising at our desks. Rather, they come when we stop working so hard to make them appear. As Wallas said, ideas come “particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day”.

Klein takes respectful issue with Wallas’ model. Namely, step one. Swathes of insights have arrived without any preparation. A person does not always seek and collect dots before connecting them. Sometimes those dots just appear. Through a combination of prior knowledge, experience and vested interest, a person may connect those dots, gaining an insight. Special Agent Williams did not embark upon a mission to locate a potential terrorist mission. He noticed a contradiction, and gained an insight.

According to Klein’s Triple Path Model, contradictions are one of three triggers of insights. The other triggers are connections (or coincidences) and creative desperation.

Klein’s Triple Path Model

When we notice an inconsistency in a “known quantity”, we can use that inconsistency to rebuild the prevailing story. The inconsistency changes our understanding, which can change the way we act, see or feel about something. This is the contradiction pathway. In addition to the story of the Phoenix Memo, Klein tells the story of the young cop. Driving around one night, the young cop and his work mate pulled up at a traffic light behind a new, flashy BMW. The young cop watched the driver stretch out his arm and ash his cigarette in to the passenger seat. The leather clad, luxurious passenger seat. To the young cop, this was a glaring inconsistency. No person who spends that much money on a car would then treat the car with such disrespect. This contradiction led to the insight – is the driver the owner? The young cop didn’t think so. A chase ensued and the young coppers caught the car thief.

Connections and coincidences can arise as rarely and unexpectedly as contradictions. When we spot a connection or a coincidence we receive new information. We add a new anchor to our beliefs and then work out the implications. Klein tells the story of Barry Marshall, the Australian doctor who noticed the link between patients with stomach ulcers and the presence of a particular bacteria (H pylori).  Up to 1994, yes, 1994, everyone believed that stress caused stomach ulcers. Marshall probed this theory. He obtained funding and ran laboratory testing, which involved sampling stomach fluid to see if it contained the H pylori bacteria. After a while and several samples, the samples were not showing H pylori. Marshall’s theory was not stacking up. Luckily, for Marshall and sufferers of stomach ulcers, the hospital became overrun with a superbug, and the lab left a few samples longer than usual. Marshall didn’t realise, but the lab had only been keeping the stomach samples for two days, the standard practice for culturing for strep infections. The samples that were left waiting amid the superbug crisis were left for five days, long enough to grow H pylori. Marshall proved his claim that stomach ulcers were caused by H pylori, not stress. More importantly, Marshall established that stomach ulcers could be cured by antibiotics rather than surgery.

The third pathway to insight is creative desperation. Creative desperation means shaking off an impasse or weak anchor in order to move forward. Klein tells a very graphic story about a climber, the same story featured in the movie 127 hours. Long story short, the climber is stuck in a ravine because his arm is stuck. He tries to amputate his arm but his knife is too blunt. He flails in desperation and in doing so feels a tug on his arm. He realises that he can snap his bones and cut himself out. Gruesome, but it saves his life. He was desperate and it force him to think creatively. We’ve all been there, on a far more household level I know, but we’ve all been there. In my view there’s nothing that cannot be repaired with a pair of tweezers and a bobby pin. Such creative solutions only come in the desperate absence of proper tools.

Okay, so contradiction, coincidence and creative desperation are the three triggers for insights. There are many ways in which people and organisations interfere with insights. The desire for predictability and perfectionism and methods to reduce errors and uncertainty are chief among them. Do the same thing, expect the same results. Explore a contradiction, seek a connection, grasp a creative solution, and perhaps you will gain an insight.

Klein says that if we want to increase our own insights, we should know about the different paths. Each path calls for its own methods. The contradiction path depends on us being open to surprises and willing to take them seriously even if they contradict our “known quantities”. The connection path requires us to be open to experiences and ready to speculate about unfamiliar possibilities. Creative desperation requires us to challenge an impasse. To critically examine our assumptions and detect the flaws. We must also keep our desires for predictability and perfection in check.

So, in sum, if you want an idea or insight you have to work for it. Whatever you think you know, question it. Whatever someone else knows for sure, challenge it. Remember “The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Thought leader(s): Gary Klein; Graham Wallas; Special Agent Kenneth Williams; Barry Marshall

Book(s): Klein, G (2014, 2017) “Seeing What Others Don’t”, Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 

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