“They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope”
- Lewis Carroll, The Hunting Of The Snark
Recently I’ve detected a backlash among researchers against the word “insight”. This is only a few years after I saw someone stand up at conference and talk about how the word ‘research’ was holding us all back and we needed to rename ourselves the “insight industry”. So this could just be a pendulum swinging rather than a fundamental shift.
It could also be that the word needs an overhaul. “Insight” came into fashion because it chimed with two industry trends - a shift away from valorising data to valorising analysis, and a shift away from the comprehensive to the summary. “Insight” was the synthesis of both - a diamond-bright crystallisation of a data set into a single breakthrough point. It belonged in the same world as Blink and the Elevator Pitch - more, it put research into that world. It was sexy and fast and devastating.
Researchers prepare the “Large Data Collider” in search of the insight particle.
The only problem was nobody could agree on what one looked like. At one end of the spectrum you had a situation where every tuppeny-ha’penny observation was swiftly packaged up as an “insight”. I remember sitting in a presentation once in which - using the hot new tool of social media aggregation - someone announced the “insight” that people are more interested in ski-ing holidays in January than in June. This was when the penny dropped that the word was on a hiding to nothing.
At the other end of the scale one of my senior colleagues used to insist that most projects never uncovered an insight. They were very rare - you might get one every year if you were lucky. While I don’t doubt the integrity of this kind of purism it means that an industry based on selling the bloody things has a much harder row to hoe.
Inevitably there were clashes along this spectrum of opinion, more and more of them as the word stopped being a fresh addition to the lexicon and started becoming a lazy fallback option. On the one hand it was so overused it was becoming meaningless. It started getting paired with the word “key” - key insights, one per slide, as opposed to the other 25 non-key insights you had in the shower this morning.
On the other hand if you listened to some people nobody except Steve Jobs had had an insight since 1962. (The heyday of “insight” coincides with the era when it was almost impossible to see a research presentation without a picture of an iPod or iPhone.) “Give me an example of an insight, then” became my number one Awkward Bastard Question in meetings. If you said Betty Crocker and the egg, lose a million points.
“I feel honoured to bask in the presence of a Consumer Insight.”
Something had to give. But not because the word is useless, or because only charlatans use it. Most of the best researchers I knew had a definition of insight that worked for them - that was the thing they would be working towards on a project, a success factor. It was just they couldn’t agree on it. So now I have a rather more ecumenical approach to it. You know insight when you see it. It’s the thing that makes you feel good about a piece of research work; it’s the “yes!” moment in a report; it’s the bit that has you jumping out of your chair and pacing up and down with the implications. Or it’s a banal observation about kids liking yoghurts with faces on the lid: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Because like faith, insight is a private matter. Chase it, embrace it, know deep down that the version you’re pursuing is the right one. And then when you’ve got your insight for heaven’s sake don’t call it that.