Interview | Insight Is Novel, Actionable, and Valuable
Read time: 6 minutes
First off, how do you define insight?
I define insight as information that has been made actionable. There’s an “aha” factor to it. If the insight is very powerful, it’s probably something that is not immediately obvious; it’s not merely an observation. An insight can transform the way you look at the world around you: “Oh, I can turn that into something of value, a new product, a new message, a new piece of advice, anything that can guide me down a better path.” So, if I were to use three words to define insight, I’d say: novel, actionable, and valuable.
You may have already answered this question, but I’ll ask it anyway to see if we can tease out any nuances. How would you describe the difference between information and insight?
Information by itself is not valuable. It’s not actionable. I don’t know what to do with it. And that’s because it hasn’t yet been subjected to the workings of the human mind. Information has potential, though. Information is like a seed that hasn’t been planted and watered; it hasn’t been brought to life yet. Once we focus the human brain on it, when we consider and evaluate the information, give it shape and context that can be acted upon, that’s when it becomes valuable insight.
Would you say that information needs to be interrogated or questioned?
It does need to be interrogated. It also needs to be challenged. There’s a conversion process from information to insight. It takes work. It doesn’t come easily. But here’s the part that’s interesting: if that information-to-insight conversion process takes place within someone’s domain of expertise, they’re going to be more effective and efficient at it because they have a more powerful frame of reference. The more often you convert information to insight, the better at it you get. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Let me give you an example. We’ve been telling our clients how to interview their B2B customers for years. So when somebody introduces a new methodology (which for our purposes is new information), I immediately apply a B2B filter: does this make sense for B2B vs. B2C? Now I am interrogating this new information … the new methodology. I know where B2B pitfalls and advantages lie, what will likely work, and what will likely fail. And I know this simply because I’ve been converting information into insight in this domain for a long time.
Can you give me an example of a time you needed outside insight to meet a challenge or solve a problem?
Yes, we teach our clients how to do in-depth interviews with their customers in a targeted market segment. One of our clients had many possible markets to pursue but didn’t know which would be the most valuable. They had a high-level research report that told them that market X had hundreds of millions of dollars potential, but they lacked all kinds of insight on market trends, key players, etc. I recommended that they go to GLG and ask them to do broad-based interviewing and basically screen the markets to identify the most viable opportunities, effectively converting information into insight. After that, we step in and train our clients how to take it to the next level and harness and apply that insight.
How important are quantitative insights to decision making?
Quantitative insights are incredibly valuable. Let’s say a company wants to develop a new product for a specific market. They want to create a new hydraulic cylinder for bulldozers. Their hypothesis is that our customers will love that our new cylinder will have low leakage and a very quiet operation. If they conduct only qualitative interviews, there’s a real danger that confirmation bias could emerge. They go through a round of interviews and on the very last one, the interviewee casually mentions that quieter cylinder operation would be nice. Ah! Exactly what we wanted to hear! But is that really a proof point? Not necessarily.
The company needs to find a way of prioritizing customer needs in an unbiased fashion. I’d recommend that this company ask customers to rate several outcomes on a 1-to-10 scale for importance and current satisfaction. How important is noise level? How satisfied are you with noise level today? What we’re looking for are customer outcomes that score high in importance and low in current satisfaction. This is evidence-based insight. This can’t exist without the first round of qualitative interviews, or we wouldn’t even be able to come up with the list of outcomes.
Do you think the impulse of decision makers is to fall back on institutional knowledge? And at what point is that not enough?
We all do this, falling back on both institutional and personal knowledge. It’s the first subconscious reaction we have when confronted with a decision: what in my experience can I bring to bear on this? What’s the normal way our company does this? These aren’t bad impulses, but we really mustn’t stop there. We can start with what comes easily to us, but we should never finish with it. That’s where we need to interrogate information. Where did it come from? Why do we think it will apply? How will it apply?
Let me give you an example. There’s a wonderful book by Eric Ries titled The Lean Startup. It’s a great book about product design, minimum viable products, all of that. One B2B company, perceiving value in the book, launched a massive effort to train 35,000 people in its ideas. They just accepted it without challenge and missed the point that that book was written around consumer products. They told their people to quickly deliver minimum viable products to their customers when they should have told them to go out and have intelligent conversations with their B2B customers first to understand their needs. Instead, they often insulted important B2B customers with ill-conceived prototypes. It would have been far better to listen to these important customers, engage them with good questions, and return later with prototypes their customers had inspired.
For me the bottom line is this: expose myself to lots of information, and then do the hard work of converting it into insight. This isn’t easy. It means being willing to challenge what I thought was true, being uncomfortable with ambiguity until the insight coalesces, and then do it all over again as I meet new information. Not easy, but surely worthwhile.
Any last thoughts on insight you’d like to share?
Gaining insight is hard work, and that’s why most of us don’t apply ourselves to the process of converting information to insight. It’s important to expose yourself to as much relevant information as you can and then work hard to turn it into insight. This process is often informed by the expertise of others. I don’t think you should think about it as a one-off situation. It has a compounding effect. The more information you convert to insight, the more effective and more efficient you get at converting new information to insight. That’s because you have established frames of reference that you can apply to these new challenges.
To learn more, read GLG’s Insights vs. Information: Why Only Insights Have Impact guide.
About Dan Adams
Dan Adams, founder of The AIM Institute, is the author of New Product Blueprinting, the Awkward Realities blog, and the popular 50-video series B2B Organic Growth. He is a chemical engineer with many patents and awards, including a listing in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Dan has taught his B2B innovation methods to tens of thousands of B2B professionals globally and lectured at many leading universities, and he is a popular industry keynote speaker.
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