I’ve recently given a lot of thought to how, over the past year, the words "insight" and "insights" have become nearly ubiquitous job title or verb replacements for a number of positions, functions and activities, ranging from research and analytics to marketing and development.
Not just a snappy rebrand of well-tread disciplines and practices, I believe that this shift is the result of a core acknowledgement for the need to break boundaries and raise bars; to reach beyond the limitations of established taxonomies and delimitations; and to inspire the innovative thinking that is so critical in this dynamic and aggressively competitive media environment.
So, on the eve of the upcoming CTAM Insights Conference (which was the CTAM Research Conference until 2010 – see?), it’s fitting for us to consider what an insight is, where it’s formed, how it’s cultivated and to what end, and how it can be sustained.
An insight can be defined as that bit of knowledge that is gained when grasping the inward or hidden nature of something, or when coming to an understanding about the true nature of a given situation or problem (typically a complex or multidimensional situation or problem). To be insightful therefore implies that one has the capacity and creative intelligence to look into the universe of what’s going on (or isn’t), to then conjure these penetrating truths or solutions, and ultimately experience that elusive “ah-ha!” moment.      
Insights are seemingly mysterious, but you certainly know them when you see them. Particularly when you see them manifested in the material products and services of your key competitors, that ah-ha moment is often accompanied by the head-scratching question “Why didn’t I think of that?” Wrong question, too late!
Forging insights and being insightful are not of the magical realm. Both very simply begin with asking questions: What if? Why? Why not? What’s next? What’s important? What’s not? What’s that? No questions? No insights! This is not an over-simplified, simple-minded observation, but a sincere declaration of a fundamental tenet of the capacity to identify the extraordinary among the ordinary. And isn’t that what insight is all about?

A second tenet of the capability to generate both valuable and actionable insights is inextricably linked to the ability to turn questions on their heads; to be facile at switching optics and perspectives; and to know when it’s either time to ingeniously twist the Rubik’s Cube or hit it with a hammer. These abilities, coupled with a faithful practice of active inquisitiveness, are fundamental for creative intelligence, innovative thinking and industrious ideation – all keys to cultivating insights.
If that’s all there is to it, why, you may ask, can some people forge insights whereas others seemingly can’t? Is it the absence of an inquisitive mind? I don’t think so. In fact, the greatest inhibitors to insightfulness may not be rooted in the wiring of the grey-matter, but instead more likely to reside in the external world of circumstance and structure, such as “no time” and “best practices.”
Now you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I get the no time thing, but don’t mess with my best practices!’ Yet best practices instituted with too much vigor and unquestionably followed without periodic assessment of their validity, vitality, and efficacy (particularly in dynamic circumstances), can stifle the inquisitive mind and the realization of that critical ah-ha moment.
So perhaps the third tenet for nurturing insightfulness is the necessity to fashion an environment that is not encumbered by past structures and is, therefore, more conducive to original thought and discovery – a milieu designed for creation, not imitation.
In his text, “Art and Illusion,” E.H. Gombrich writes, “Before the artist ever wanted to match the sights of the visible world he wanted to create things in their own right.” Two points here. First, following best practices too closely can compel even the best companies to move in lockstep with their competitors by duplicating or improving upon what is seen in the visible world. The result? Nothing new for customers or viewers. These companies meander along a well-worn road to an undifferentiated nowhere.
Second, we want to create. We’re driven to make new things. However, though it’s what we do best, it’s one of the first capabilities we lose by the imposition of over-structured processes, procedures, and practices.
In light of my wariness and weariness of best practices, I suggest this alternative: some primary building blocks and braided principles that foster a fertile environment where insights have a better chance of flourishing. Among them, I’d include:
·       An interdisciplinary focus and a comparative outlook that consistently produces comprehensive pictures of the interrelationships that exist among technology, media and brands, and human behavior and experience.
·       An analytical discipline that probes for the most salient points of intersection among the aforementioned interrelationships and produces a deeper understanding of the transformative power inherent within them.
·       A multi-methodological approach that allows for the selection of tools to investigate and elaborate on market, social and cultural conditions, the creation of focused strategies and impactful tactics, and the purposeful evaluation of results.
·       A bias for action that identifies, creates, and seizes upon the opportunities that are informed by the insights generated by the fundamentals above.
There is no greater exhilaration than identifying an invaluable insight, making it actionable and creating something truly extraordinary from it. Of course, these “wins” provide the necessary feedback to drive a need for doing it again. To go back into the intersections to see, innovate and create on a regular basis – drawing from and imbuing colleagues with a passion for producing what’s next.

(Anthony White is Founder & Principal of Media Twister Partners, a strategic marketing and research practice forging actionable insights for a dynamic media environment. Anthony can be reached in his Los Angeles, California office at 310.230.3652 or by email at AnthonyWhite@MediaTwisterPartners.com)

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