Daddy, What’s an Insight?

Some people in business can’t see their way to understanding the insight. Their problem is that they are unable to grasp, or appreciate, its process and purpose. For big corporations driven by a marketing culture, an insight is seen as a tool. By uncovering the beliefs, practices, opinions or attitudes of consumers through some form of qualitative or quantitative research, it’s meant to affect change in the behavior of consumers, reveal their reason to believe in a brand or product and drive competitive advantage. For most consultancies as well, an insight is seen as a tool. Internally, some see it as an effective way to pry bigger budgets out of clients by linguistically finessing them with terms like actionable, catalytic, deep dive, 360° or ‘proprietary methodology.’ Externally, others rightly promote it as an effective way to power up the front end of the so-called innovation toolkit.

Given the typically high turnover rate of brand managers, the difficulties faced by research managers in validating their budget spends to bosses and the fact that consultancies have finely tuned their business development language to speak to corporations, it should come as no surprise that the insight is seen and used as a tool. But an insight is not a tool.

Rather than suggesting that the definition of an insight is unclear or unsatisfying because those most erudite sources of agency wisdom – Wikipedia or Microsoft Word – have not made it so, those who are genuinely interested in understanding, cultivating and applying the insight in business should do what every experienced insights professional does at the beginning of a project: read and research.

Quickly, they will arrive at the work of Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984). A Quebec-born Jesuit priest, Lonergan was a philosopher, theologian and economist who taught at Loyola College, Regis College, Pontifical Gregorian University, Boston College and Harvard. Among the 25 volumes of his writing currently being edited by the Lonergan Research Institute at the University of Toronto’s Regis College, those seeking more satisfying definitions will discover 1957’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.

For all of his Thomist philosophy, dipping into Plato and insisting that readers must first understand this subject through examples from mathematics, Lonergan offers a surprisingly simple definition of an insight: as an act of understanding. This suggests a creative confluence of the past and present, public and private, process and performance, person and place, and possibility and pattern in which the insight is an active doing, becoming or journey.

As the father of the Generalized Empirical Method, Lonergan was concerned with big philosophical questions such as, how do we know? And how do we know that we know? His method relied on his realization that we know in two different ways, the commonsense mode and the theoretical mode. In the commonsense mode, we get how things are related to ourselves because we pay attention to practical things, interpersonal relationships and social roles. In the theoretical mode, we get how things are related to each other because we strive to understand the nature of things, like gravity. In both modes, we experience insights.

To communicate the insight as experience, some Lonergan scholars love to turn to the mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, finds Dr. Watson describing the signs of an insight:

Holmes sat in silence as we drove back to Baker Street, and I knew from his drawn brows and keen face that his mind, like my own, was busy in endeavoring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted.

This excerpt is not about the ‘Aha!’ moment typically associated with the finality of an insight but rather the steps leading towards it through the consideration and assembly of experience, clues, suspicions and patterns. In drawing on Sherlock Holmes as their example, Lonergan and his scholars are prioritizing the value of the process, something that could improve the empathy quotient in corporations hooked on communicating through the Executive Summary. More importantly, they are providing us with more than a hint as to whom, exactly, is best suited to embark and report on the journey of the insight. Those who are good at experiencing insights have some accumulation of past insights, a good memory and a decent degree of intelligence. Because insights arrive as a release to the tension of inquiry, those who are best suited to experiencing them have to want to and be driven to know, understand, discover, find and explain. They are genuinely curious people. Insights often arrive suddenly and unexpectedly and are not necessarily the product of methodologies. Those who are best suited to experiencing them are driven to re-write rules. As Mark and Elizabeth Morelli write in The Lonergan Reader, “Were there rules for discovery, then discoveries would be mere conclusions.”

While the conclusion is critical, the conclusion is the conclusion and the insight is the insight. Arriving there only occurs among those people who Lonergan writes are able to draw on four distinct levels of consciousness: an experience of data; an understanding of data; a judgment that the understanding is correct; and a decision to act on resulting knowledge.

On the first level – experience – our attention is pre-patterned to focus on those sexual, biological, practical, dramatic, aesthetic, intellectual and mystical interests that so occupy us as human beings. Given that these are the main frames of our experience as beings, this is our pool from which data flows. Lonergan sums this up as: be attentive.

On the second level – understanding – our intellect makes us pursue answers to how, why and what for by excluding data and ideas that we consider inaccurate, irrelevant or useless. We do that by drawing on knowledge that we have already verified as accurate, relevant or useful. Lonergan sums this up as: be intelligent.

On the third level – judgment – our reason tests that our understanding makes sense of experience. Here, critical reflexivity, deep consideration and even an ability to tap into the understandings and experiences of those who have come before us lead to better conclusions. Lonergan sums this up as: be reasonable.

On the fourth and final level – decision – our consciences make value judgments that will drive us nuts until we conform to them. Whether you’re a data junkie or an intuition addict, this is the level where you should know what to do with what you have experienced, understood and judged. Lonergan sums this up as: be responsible.

So, are these levels – and those who experience the journey through them that Lonergan refers to as ‘the thinking and choosing person’ – alive and well in the world of consumer insights? While levels of experience, memory and curiosity are difficult, if not impossible, to assess through indirect engagement, a quick search through LinkedIn and a review of the profiles of people practicing insights reveals what could be considered two alarming (and ongoing) facts or trends.

The first concerns the qualifications of consultants. Between English Lit grads running consumer insights departments and anthropology BAs claiming to be ethnographers, one wonders about having had a good teacher and being able to draw on those who came before as criteria for experiencing, understanding and judging. Here, the issue is not the methodology that many on the client side are obsessed with as the marker of authenticity but rather, the theory. Had Plato not had Socrates to draw on, what might have been the result? Insights are founded on insights, and those about our behaviors, emotions and practices come from specific disciplines, people and ideas trained to consider them.

The second concerns the responsibility of consultants and their corporate clients. If an insight is an act of understanding, should both players in this consumer insights equation not act – through the design of their products, services and marketing – in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the consumer? Here, the issue is not one of knowing how to effectively leverage anxiety or insecurity as a go-to market strategy but, rather, how to empathize with the real unmet, unknown or unarticulated needs of consumers. Perhaps when everyone is prepared to engage in a genuine discussion of genuine needs, the definition of an insight – as well as the way in which we experience an insight – will be more clear and more clearly understood.

Until then, instead of thinking about insights as things that are collected, shared and applied to solve a business challenge – as corporations and consultants tend to do – consider how understanding an insight as an experience introduces new challenges, opportunities and questions. Should every consultant and client be trained to conduct human research? Do insights have to be experienced before ideation can proceed effectively? Can insights, as lived experiences, be designed into the DNA of a product or service? And how is responsibility a major strand in that DNA?

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.