Book Notes: “Seeing What Others Don’t”

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights
By Gary Klein
Public Affairs, 2013

I’m often called on to facilitate workshops with executives, managers, individual contributors, and third-party partners. These are costly engagements — not because of my fees, but because getting groups of busy people to focus their attention on a single thing for two or three days comes at the expense of many other things they have to do. The upside: good workshops can generate incredibly valuable insights. So I’m always looking for ways of becoming better at creating the conditions that allow insights to emerge. Seeing What Others Don’t is a guide for doing so, and one of the most useful books I’ve read on the subject.

It starts with a valuable insight: performance improvements usually result from decreasing errors and increasing insights. However, most organizations focus on the former (Klein cites Six Sigma as a notable example), but not enough on the latter. (“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.”)

The book seeks to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What sparks an insight?
  2. What prevents us from getting it, even when it’s right in front of us?
  3. How can I increase the flow of insights?

The author’s MO is to look at case studies; he “hunted” for and studied scores of cases of situations where an insight made the difference. This led him to uncover four conditions that lead to the triggering of an insight:

  • Recognizing connections
  • Recognizing coincidences and curiosities
  • Recognizing contradictions
  • Creative desperation

The case studies are invariably engaging: they range from the story of how financial analyst Harry Markopolos spotted Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme long before anyone else did, to how Aron Ralston, a mountain climber, figured out how to free himself when his arm became trapped by a boulder for over five days. (This last tale had me shivering; it was a very compelling illustration of the concept of creative desperation.)

Klein extracts instructive patterns from these cases. I left the book inspired to think about how I can create conditions to stimulate connections and give breathing room to contractions, coincidences, and curiosities. (Creative desperation is often accounted for; deadlines seem to always be looming!)

Seeing What Others Don’t offers a compelling framework for understanding the conditions that lead to actionable insights. It’s worth studying, especially by strategic designers and others in roles that call for continuous innovation.

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