Insight is unquestionably the innovator’s most vital tool. But its edge is dulled by rampant ambiguity about just what insight is, by an entrenched myth about where it resides, and by letting staleness creep in to the ways we extract it.
To keep its edge sharp, it’s time to don the blacksmith’s smock and give it a helpful rub at the whetstone.

In humble service to this incredible power source we call insight, and its immense value to the pursuit of innovation in any endeavor great or small, this paper sets out to do three things:

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To bring overdue clarity to just what insight is.
There’s a massively unhelpful misconception out there that insight somehow defies definition. Can we really look the world in the eye and say with a straight face that insight is all important, but we’re not telling you what it is? In a word, no.

To erase the invisible prefix.
Most people in innovation practice will read the word insight inked on this page and immediately think consumer insight. If you’re in the minority that take a broader view, congratulations. But if you can’t help but add the prefix, here’s a healthy provocation. Consumer insight is a critical half of innovation’s ignition system, but just half. Commercial insight is the other half, and with remarkable frequency, it proves to be the missing link separating success from failure, big from small, a rapid sprint to market from a slow slog, and profitable outcomes from costly wheel spinning.

To refresh the insight hunter’s playbook with a six-pack of ways to invigorate your pursuit of insight.
Any chef knows that if you change the way you apply the heat, you’ll transform the dish. It’s no less true of how you apply heat to insight generation. There’s no holy grail here, but some worthy ways and means that work in our pursuits and may help yours.


Quest For Definition
nearly every human and commercial phenomenon is measured, bench-marked and analyzed within an inch of its death, where businesses of immense scale are built on the premise of giving away things of value solely to acquire the sellable data beneath them, and where the relentless march of the digital algorithm threatens to neuter those precious human gifts we call intuition and instinct, this highly loaded term insight has been bought, sold, sliced, diced, diluted and bastardized with liberal abandon.


But you can’t get sparks by banging marshmallows together.
Much of what is touted today as insight is merely information in sight – insight’s distant ancestral cousin at best. What’s helping this unhelpful dilution run rampant is that so much about insight remains shrouded in ambiguity — starting with the seemingly simple task of defining it...

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
U.S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE Potter Stewart penned this classic line in 1964. He was talking about porn, and by refusing to sully his hands with the messy business of defining it, he instantly embedded “I know it when I see it” in the lexicon. (He also avoided the full frontal assault on the nation’s innocence that any definition authored by nine blushing septuagenarians would have unleashed.)

Webster calls it “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” (This captures insight more as a capability than a thing.) IDEO’s Tim Brown is no more helpful: “That insight cannot yet be codified, quantified, or even defined—not yet, at any rate—makes it the most difficult but also the most exciting part of the design process.” Can we really look people straight in the eye and say insight is all important, but we’re not telling you what it is? In essence, you’ll know it when you see it? Being paid handsomely to help companies see opportunities they can’t readily see themselves, we probably owe the world a better answer.

Today, companies great and small face an unprecedented need for the growth that transformational innovation can unlock, and insight is the hard-edged flint from which innovation’s brightest sparks fly.

The problem for innovators is that Stewart’s nondefinition could be airlifted verbatim into the nebulous conversation around insight. It’s murky at best. On innovation’s front lines, where there is no shortage of unknowns in play already, that’s nakedly unhelpful. No matter where you hunt for definition, you find scant satisfaction. Try the handy digital dictionary bundled into Microsoft Word and you get this…Insight (noun): 1) perceptiveness, 2) clear perception, 3) self-awareness, or 4) perception that hallucinations are not real. (No, you’re not hallucinating. It really says that.)

Blush To Judgement

The Maddening Crowd

Inside The Insiders

Insight is: An introspection. (Occasionally.)

(No, it’s never just that.) Insight is: A piece of information.

Has the wisdom of the crowd figured this out? Apparently not.

(Proof that saying specific and being specific are very different things.) Insight is: The understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context.

(Getting warmer, but again, that’s just describing the capability.) Insight is: The act or result of understanding the inner nature of things. (Yikes.) Insight is: An understanding of cause and effect based on identification of relationships and behaviors within a model, context, or scenario…see artificial intelligence.

IF NOT THE MASSES, surely the pros have a straight-laced, straight-faced answer. A casual polling of some of the best and brightest at Fortune 100 companies along with highly respected researchers who buy and sell insight daily yields definitions like these: It’s the a-ha…It’s that door opener that says, hey, you’re talking about me…It’s that goose bump moment…It’s an epiphany!

These definitions aptly capture the wind that gusts through our hair when a great insight bursts into the room. (Yes, we know it when we see it!) But they don’t even flirt with defining the thing we’re actually reacting to. It’s like describing Parliament Funkadelic as music that makes you want to boogie. OK, that’s the response, but what’s the music?

A coherent workable definition, it seems, is lost in the crowd.

Between the capability that begets it, and the reaction that comes in its wake, it seems we’ve got insight surrounded. But we still aren’t quite touching it.


A Freudian Blip
come from our Head of Research, Dr. Barbara Nurenberg,Ph.D.  — a trained psychologist with an extraordinary gift for seeing through the layers of fog to what lies beneath.

A Fresh, Potent & Energizing Truth

“You want to know who really gets insight? The Psychoanalysts! It’s their professional bread and butter. They define it metaphorically as seeing with the eyes of the mind to make connections…a powerful integration and synthesis that, once put together, forms a new perspective. The result is an analyst being able to say ‘Look!’ to the patient, or the patient saying ‘Eureka’ to himself. The ‘a-ha’, however, is only half of the story. Yes, an insight is an end point  —  an intuitive leap, a synthesis of data—but more importantly, it’s a starting point, valued so highly in therapy because it holds the potential for self-change.” A-ha indeed.

Potential for change is the reason great innovators get goose bumps from great insights, which hurl open the gates to new possibilities that weren’t visible before. This innate potential is the genetic trait that separates the merely interesting from the catalytic. Pivoting on this core idea of potential for change, we get to the definition that’s pinned to our wall at Fahrenheit 212, and that we teach our people to obsess about in our daily pursuit of transformational innovation for the world’s great companies. In the pursuit of transformational innovation, an insight is a fresh, potent and energizing truth. Perfect? Of course not. But massively more useful than any other we’ve seen. A little deconstruction shows how useful it is, both in defining what we’re chasing, and filtering wheat from chaff, flint from marshmallow.

start at the end.

This theme of potential for change, conspicuously absent from the litany of definitions in circulation, is for those of us on the innovation front lines, the defining characteristic of great insight—the kind capable of igniting transformational innovation.

Yes, your honor, there’s a noun. A thing called truth. To be a truth is to be resonant and reflective of meaningful underlying reality. It doesn’t mean an insight has to be universally true. Great insights are often found at the bellwether fringes. But it has to be true and ring true. In pursuit of transformational innovation, an insight can either be a truth about a human experience, aspiration, unmet need or tension, or about a business, category, strategic ambition, product or analog that points the way to profitable opportunity. (More on these commercial dimensions in a minute.) It is a fresh truth because if we’ve heard it before, chances are it’s a topical observation, evident to all, rather than a bona fide insight. Insight is a form of competitive advantage born of seeing things that our competitors can’t. Old truths are table stakes, likely to be widely recognized across the competitive set, and therefore not a source of new competitive advantage. Even if we’re hunting for a new solution to an age-old problem, and leveraging accrued institutional knowledge, fresh answers require fresh perspective, be it from new depth of understanding, new connections between phenomena we didn’t realize were connected, or some other source of new edge. But if it’s not fresh, it’s more likely to offer

Physicists, engineers and architects obsess over tensile energy and strength. To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value. Throw the weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions.
foundational understanding than catalytic ignition. A fresh, potent truth, because there are many deep underlying truths about life or a business that are merely interesting cul de sacs. (While it’s true that the human eye can perceive more than a million colors, there isn’t much innovation you can build off it, and it’s not really an insight.) To provide the sparks we need, our insights have to be richly laden with opportunity for transformation and new possibility. The potency we need usually comes from an unresolved tension. Physicists, engineers and architects obsess over tensile energy and strength. To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value. Throw the weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions. There is no prescription for the nature of that tension — functional, emotional, experiential, interpersonal, sensory or financial tensions, or simply unfulfilled aspirations are all viable ways in. A fresh, potent energizing truth because yes, our reaction does matter. Insight needs to inspire and ignite ideas and action among the people it touches. Forget the images of the lonely inventor in the garage. Innovation is a team sport and great insights will electrify and galvanize teams around a sense of new possibility. No, we can’t define insight solely by the reaction it creates. But it’s still a critical piece and source of its value.


Erasing The Invisible Prefix
I’VE WRITTEN ELSEWHERE that one of the most powerful things innovators have to listen for is the thing that isn’t being said. The unsaid thing about insight is its inaudible prefix.


Funnel Vision
TO UNDERSTAND WHY it’s necessary and valuable to ignite the ideation process with both consumer and commercial insights, think for a minute about the nature of innovation triage at most companies.

we make money? And why is this analogs from other categories or idea something we should pursue, cracks in business models that once made sense but don’t moving forward. rather than just an interesting thing that we could? Commercial insight’s role is simple.

We hear insight. We think consumer insight. That’s not just a prefix, it’s a psychological fence around the type of insight we hunt for. That fence puts half of the playing field out of bounds, and the left-out half is mission critical to transformational innovation. Why? Because transformational innovation is harder than this year’s close-in line extension. It represents greater degrees of change and challenge for the business. Consumer insight is absolutely critical and instrumental, but it isn’t enough to ensure an idea represents as big a step forward for the business as it does for the consumer. Enter commercial insight. Where consumer insights capture tensions in human experience, commercial insights capture underlying tensions in the current business paradigm, like hidden barriers impeding new levels of profitability, changing dynamics at retail, a gap in a brand portfolio, the impact of new technologies, operational truths,

Where consumer insight points the way to consumer appeal, commercial insight points the way to how to execute and, above all, how to profit from it.
Innovation teams working solely from the spark of consumer insight will have a structural tendency to present their companies with great consumer answers wrapped in fundamental (and potentially fatal) commercial uncertainties. And the truth is that without acceptable levels of commercial certainty, nothing happens. Gatekeepers’ responses are quite predictable. OK, I get how this is great for consumers, but how will

Trying to backfill commercial attractiveness after we’ve fallen in love with a consumer solution isn’t impossible. But it’s a dicey game, and the root of a great deal of innovation failure. It’s like trying to build a bridge between what’s good for the consumer and what’s good for the business out of hope and fraying rope. Too often the proposed consumer solution not only fails to resolve existing commercial tensions, it adds new ones to the pile. There’s a better way. Priming the ideation pump with both consumer and commercial insights changes the game. It spawns ideas purpose-built to resolve big tensions for both the consumer and the company. The result is transformational ideas with vastly better odds of making it through the pipeline and delivering ROI.

In any healthy, forward-looking business, the fat end of the innovation funnel has a broad array of fledgling initiatives in various stages of definition and exploration – far more than the company has capacity and resources to successfully launch if they all came to fruition. In the early stages, a sightline to an unmet consumer need is usually enough to keep momentum and funding.

Every remaining idea competing for finite resources is a viable consumer solution.
The ideas that get the final nod from the CEO and CFO are those that represent the biggest strategic, financial and operational wins for the company. This is where ideas ignited at the intersection of consumer insight and commercial insight — purposebuilt from day one to deliver big wins for both the consumer and the business  —  will have a huge leg up over those gestated purely on consumer insight, which have to go back to go forward, trying to figure out how to make the idea as attractive to the commercial gatekeepers as it is to consumers. Too often, it never gets figured out. Either because the consumer solution had a baked-in conflict with company strategy, financial goals or operational realities, or because funding dried up before that bridge between the consumer solution and a profitable business could be built.

But the deeper you move down the funnel, the more intensely Darwinist it gets.
The initiatives that couldn’t find a big consumer solution have already died off.


Commercial Insight At Work
– rather than just that rich but partial subset we call consumer insight  —  the front end of any transformational innovation project should be designed to pursue parallel tracks of insight discovery: one aimed at the consumer, the other at the business.

Our idea exploration included extensive probing of the possibilities opened up by the performance characteristics of locally available substrates as potential springboards to new consumer experiences.

What does a commercial insight look like and what role does it play? Here’s an example from a recent FMCG project. While half of our team busied itself with probing the inner recesses of the consumer experience, our commercial strategists unearthed this fresh, potent and energizing truth grounded in the impact of a core product ingredient on profitability: “Our profitability today is inextricably linked to our use of a single source substrate that gives our current product its efficacy and performance characteristics. Because it comes from just one place, we spend a fortune shipping it hundreds of miles from its source to each of our regional production facilities. All things being equal, by replacing it with any other viable substrate available close by, we could add 5 margin points to every box we sell, and massively lighten our carbon footprint. As alternate substrates don’t do what our current substrate does, this would require opening new vectors in the consumer experience to make new substrates attractive. But the value of making it happen would be immense.” This commercial insight — this fresh, potent and energizing truth about how our client makes its products and makes money— provided a tremendous spark for ideas, and one that was not in view at project inception. Pairing up consumer tensions with this hidden commercial tension could ignite ideas that would not only be consumer accepted, but a godsend to the business, likely to sail through the stage gate process.

Built at the crossroads of powerful consumer and commercial insights, the winning idea delivered not only the highest concept score in category history, but a way to transform margins and simplify operations, delivering big top line growth and better profitability than everything else our client had on shelf or in the pipeline.
When this idea reached the CEO’s desk for green light, only one question was asked. How fast can we make this happen? Other attractive consumer solutions competing for resources were pushed aside to fast track this one.



A Refreshing 6-Pack
mental process somewhat akin to method acting where you transcend your own personal circumstances. You’ll look at external research less as a source of answers than of context – showing you the fabric of the laces on the shoes you’re jumping into, which throws you further into that mental space to unlock the pearls that reside there. THE INTROSPECTOR If you’re an introspector, you instinctively look inward before you look outward, beginning your hunt for insight by exploring your own life experiences, and assessing your own actions, reactions and inner motivations in situations relevant to whatever you’re working on. You have an unusually high level of self awareness that opens pathways to richer, more nuanced levels of emotional understanding than you’ll readily get by interviewing others and chipping through their layers. Finding insight becomes a process of extrapolation, where you project outward from your personal experience and sift out things that ring true for the world around you from things that are idiosyncratic or purely personal. You look at external research as a way to validate gut hunches, or to spark new ones. Find the approach (or blend of them) that best fits your personal wiring and you’ll do big things. Know that any prescriptive view you read about how insight should be unearthed may


To find new questions, try on some new answers.

A technique we find incredibly powerful at uncovering big insights is using an array of hypothetical transformational answers to force us to think about the problem at hand in very new ways. For instance, we might say, if the answer to this challenge lay in miniaturization…what tension would that resolve? Or, if the answer was about love, what tension would that resolve? If the answer was hedonistic…or modular…or exotic… or a power tool...what needs would these answers fulfill that the current offerings in the category ignore? Looking back from very different endpoints at the unmet needs these deliberately left-field answers might serve will unearth a lot of nonstarters, but also a great deal of fresh insight. What you can see is always a function of where you’re standing. These hypothetical answers give us new perches and perspectives to see things we otherwise can’t.

Six handy ways to raise your game at generating catalytic insights.

To get there, try alternating between thinking Inside-Out and Outside-In. Outside-In means looking inward at company assets from the standpoint of the consumer’s tensions and emerging needs. Inside-Out means looking out at the consumer from the perspective of the underleveraged assets and tensions embedded in the company. You’ll find that looking at each from the vantage point of the other shines the spotlight on new things you’ll miss looking at either in isolation.

to embrace something it’s never done before. Commercial insights hold the keys to winning over the company.



Getting great at insight generation starts with figuring out what kind of insight generator you are.
In our practice, we’ve noticed over the years that great insight generators come in three distinct flavors: detectives, empathizers and introspectors. They’re all equally capable of getting to spectacular insights, but their means of getting there are very different.


Learn the art of commercial ethnography.
Many a tree has given its life to carry ink about how to poke, prod and probe a consumer to uncover unmet needs for innovation to solve. But shockingly little is said about how to dissect a business to uncover hidden commercial pain points.

An ounce of provocation is worth a pound of justification.

Like big ideas, breakthrough insights begin life as fragile things. Sometimes they’re snuffed out by worrying too much in the gestational phase about whether the insight’s right, rather than whether it’s catalytic. As Malcolm Gladwell poignantly puts it in Blink, ‘Your subconscious is much smarter than you are’. If something viscerally ignites a spark in you, there is a reason for it. Somewhere deep down you may know why, but the reason you’re excited may not be obvious to you for minutes, hours or even weeks after the fact. Let the fact that something excites you be enough to yank hard on the dangling thread and see what you uncover. Often, great ideas are ignited by insights that proved in the end to be a few degrees (or even miles) off base, but the ideas they sparked have real juice, and open fresh perspectives and new insights in their own right. It’s like the insight and the idea are symbiotically saying ‘you feed me, I’ll feed you’. Be open. Let those insights get honed. By the very ideas they spawned. Or, perhaps, by more time at the wet stone.

be right for the writer, but wrong for you. Ask a carpenter to solve a problem and the answer will be made of wood.

THE DETECTIVE If you’re a detective, your path to great insight is to aggressively hunt it down and capture it by observing and interviewing everyone in sight, asking a hundred questions, then piecing together the clues. You’ll lean heavily on external research as your primary vehicle for discovery. Those who say ‘the answer is out there, not in your office’ are probably detectives by nature, accurately describing what works best for them. But what’s ideal for the detective isn’t necessarily right for other types. THE EMPATHIZER If you’re an empathizer, you have an instinctive gift for putting yourself in other people’s shoes and imagining how they feel. You’re unusually adept at changing perspectives on a dime, and can put yourself into very different emotional frameworks with very little contextual priming. Insight generation for you is less about interrogating the world, and more a


Ask transformational questions.


What becomes clear in a long march across dozens of companies and categories is that a staggering amount of insight, and therefore competitive advantage, can be uncovered simply by defining fundamentally new questions around which to engage the marketplace and the conversations in your team. We’re not talking about clever new probing techniques, but big, high altitude questions that pack a healthy disrespect for present reality, that dare to challenge the underlying assumptions that have, artificially and unhelpfully, come to be mistaken for immovable category realities, and that give us no choice but to look at the world through fresh eyes. You know what the old questions are in your business. Tear them up and find new ones.

Think two ways: Outside-In & Inside-Out.

Transformational innovation often amounts to finding new connections between unmet needs in the marketplace and underleveraged assets residing in a business. Great insights themselves often consist of new connections, so forcing ourselves to try on new connections can ignite big insights.

And while nearly every scaled business today has a deep bench of Consumer Insights specialists, there is no delineated commercial equivalent, which means project owners are on their own to dig out those commercial insights on which transformational innovation lives or dies. The skill sets required to uncover big commercial insights have little in common with the ways we find consumer insights. You can’t passively observe a business. You have to aggressively dissect it. This means poring through the financials, technologies, operations, capabilities, channels, institutional knowledge and strategic imperatives to find the sparks  —  some in plain view, but more in darker corners – that will ignite the creation of strategies and ideas that deliver big for both the consumer and the business. The truth behind this is that it’s far easier to excite a consumer with creative, new transformational possibility than it is to get a company





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