Four useful ways to think about “insight”

Is “strategy” the shittest word in business?

No!  Although it is indeed misunderstood, and although it’s used to cloak all manner or useless jargony guff, it can only be considered prince of the bullshit realm.

The king?  There can be no question:


Yes, in comparison to this slippery bugger “strategy” seems solid as a rock.  The word “insight” has been misapplied so liberally to such a wide array of things that not only has its meaning been lost, but so too has its dignity.

It’s a punchline.  A joke.

If I had to guess, I’d say most people’s understanding of it these days is simply “a pompous word for data” – especially that derived from research.  Certainly research companies are culpable here, because they love to say that they peddle in “insights”, which may sometimes be true, but when they apply the label to all forms of information they produce it loses its edge.

This is unfortunate, because real insight actually is important – especially for strategy.

Indeed insights are what all effective strategies hinge upon.  I’m happy to stick my neck out here and say that without an insight, there can be no strategy.  Why?  Because strategy relies on creating leverage, and leverage must come from some uncommon or unknown piece of knowledge – i.e. an insight.

To put it another way, taking a different course of action from others requires having different input information.  How can you possibly act different without thinking different first?

So yes, insight is essential.

And so it’s essential we understand it, deeply and intuitively.

At a basic level I have three things to say on this:

  1. As mentioned above, an insight is new or novel piece of information that gives you leverage over the competition.  Without leverage, it’s not an insight, it’s just info.
  2. It can be discovered by research, but it’s equally likely to be discovered by observation, or just looking at things a little differently.  It is EXTREMELY unlikely that an insight will be a number.  It’s much more likely to be an angle or a thought.
  3. A good one prompts a resultant action – i.e. it makes you say “because of this, we could do X”.  That X is basically the strategy, so you can see why the insight is instrumental.

With that foundational stuff out of the way, here are four interesting ways of thinking about what an insight looks like – or even feels like – so you can start to get a better sense for them.

I. Secrets

You’ve heard me say before that “a strategy is a secret”, but strictly speaking what I meant by this is that an insight is a secret – which in turn will generate a similarly secretive strategy.

This word is just an easy way of judging whether a nugget of info is “insight worthy”.  If you can call it a “secret” without looking like an idiot, then it probably is.  If you can’t, then it probably isn’t.  It’s just such a great word because the standards it sets are so high – and are exactly the standards we should be shooting for.

II. Obvious, but unspoken

One of the main reasons that insights are rarely numbers or stats is because they should be self-evidently true without supporting data.  They should be OBVIOUS.

Now this might sound weird given that I just said they are also “secrets” – how can something be an “obvious secret”?  The answer is that is must be something everyone can instantly see is true, but which they never thought about before.

To give you an example, one of the foundational insights behind my own business is the idea that strategies must not only be effective, but also be inspirational.  Why?  Because if a strategy doesn’t inspire people to take action nothing will be done, so its effectiveness is irrelevant.  Thus strategy is a motivational discipline.

This is an obvious point.  But it’s also not something that the industry ever really acknowledges or thinks about, and so inspiration is rarely consciously built into most strategy work.  That’s what gives the idea its power.  Its rarity.

Such rarity is also why an insight will often result in…

III. “Huh, I never thought of it like that before”

This is the stock reaction to a good insight.  It’s what you want to hear from people when you say it.

It implies not only that it’s new information to them, but also that it’s graspable and illuminating.  That it twists their whole perspective on a subject.

This sort of reconsideration is also what you want to prompt in customers.  You want to shift their worldview so your competitors seem inadequate, and you are left as the only reasonable choice.

Another good reaction is laughter.  Tom Stoppard wrote that laughter is the sound of comprehension.  The sound of the pieces falling into place; of a mystery solved.  That then too, is the sound of insight – which is why comedians are such great insight generators.

IV. Surprising and general

This final one comes from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham – someone who knows a thing or two about businesses with extraordinary leverage.

He says that he always looks for businesses which are built on an observation like this – “surprising and general”.  What he means is that there must be a surprise in there (obviously), but which is about the world at large – not about something that just applies to you, or a narrow situation.

Like secret, “surprise” is another high standards word, so it’s another good yardstick with which to judge.  And I think that the fact that someone like Graham demands such a standard in Y-Combinator’s investments just goes to show that insight is not optional.


Of course none of the above tells you explicitly how to “find” an insight.  But actually that’s not the hard part.  You have them every day.  You say them in relaxed and enjoyable conversations.  Most of the thought experiments and exercises I talk about here are designed to yield them.

They’re all over the place.

What you’re really lacking is not the material, but the sensitivity to recognise the magic when it comes.  That’s the rarer skill.

And hopefully with the above, you’ll be a little bit closer to developing it.

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