My 10:00 a.m. appointment is a student in EMBA—the Executive MBA program. About 35, she has responsibility for business planning at a health-products company. EMBA students stay at their full-time jobs, attending classes on Fridays and Saturdays. She has come to my fifth-floor office to talk about a problem at work. “We have a new CEO,” she begins, “and he has asked me to develop a new strategy for the division’s business. He wants a strategy that will deliver 15% annual growth in profits. I am really working in your course, and I enjoy the case discussions, but it all seems so vague and imprecise. What tools can I use to create a new strategy?”
There are tools in every field. To master finance one has to learn discounting, option pricing, and the more general logic of arbitrage. To become expert at marketing, one has to learn methods for estimating market response to price, promotion, and advertising and accept the discipline of thinking about how the world looks to a buyer. In strategy work, our key tools are frameworks designed to trigger and guide insight.
We talk for a bit about her business and about the course concepts. I encourage her to identify what makes her business different, or special, compared to its competitors. This simple exercise is designed to discover relative strengths and weaknesses, the building blocks of insights into strategic advantage.
“We have good people,” she says. “We try to keep our products up to date. We …” She pauses, then spills out her concern. “The company’s strategic plans are short documents that describe financial goals and show the milestones for getting there. There really isn’t a lot of room for this kind of philosophizing. What I need is a simple roadmap, a plan for achieving the goal.”The EMBA student is in a tough spot. Her company’s planning system is just a longer-term budget exercise. It isn’t designed to create strategy, but instead to force people into commitments to financial goals that they will later be held responsible for achieving. There is nothing wrong with such plans and budgets, they are absolutely essential for managing complex organizations. The trouble is that calling this “strategic planning” creates the illusion that a strategy exists. If a company had no future oriented plan of any kind, everyone would understand that something was missing. But a steady rolling three-year budget, labeled Strategic Plan, can lull many into complacency about the future.
The EMBA student wants a strategy tool, imagining, or hoping for an algorithm, a formula, or at least a precise methodology. But there are no precise methods for triggering insight. “Bear with me awhile,” I say, “and let’s talk about your company’s relative strengths.
How does insight happen? Insight has several defining characteristics. Insight springs upon us, taking us by surprise. Insight may arise unasked, catching us in the middle of some unconnected activity. An insight “feels right,” its truth self-evident. And, we are unaware of how insight is attained. Introspection fails to reveal the underlying process.
Scientists both prize and fear insight. Prized because it is the inductive fount of new science, it is also feared because its workings are mysterious and cannot be assured to either intelligence or diligence. That duality is often expressed in the tales told of the giants in the field. Writer James Gleick recounts this story about Nobel Laureate physicists Richard Feynman and Murry Gell-Mann.
A physicist . . . discovers unpublished lecture notes by Richard Feynman . . . He asks Gell-Mann about them. Gell-Mann says “no, Dick’s methods are not the same as the methods used here.” The student asks, “well, what are Feynman’s methods?” Gell-Mann leans coyly against the blackboard and says, “Dick’s method is this. You write down the problem. You think very hard.” (He shuts his eyes and presses his knuckles parodically to his forehead.) “Then you write down the answer.”1
The human brain is a mass of soft gelid tissue with a ropy convoluted surface. Exposed, it literally looks like a bag of fat worms. A central crease runs from front to back, marking the brain’s division into right and left hemispheres. On the sides of the brain are the temporal lobes—bulges of brain matter extending back from the temples and lying just above the ears. The main areas of basic language processing lie on the left side of the brain, just above the temporal lobes. One, to the front, deals with speaking. The other, to the rear, deals with understanding the speech of others. When you hear the sentence “My house has two bedrooms,” the area to the left-rear flares into activity. A semantically more complex sentence invokes additional areas of the brain. When you read “My Father’s house has many mansions” the upper front edges of your temporal lobes turn on to process the metaphor. This region is known as the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG). (A gyrus is one of the “worms” on the brain’s surface and these particular worms lie on the top edges of the temporal lobes.) Put your fingers on either side of your head about 1 inch above your ears. Under your fingers are your aSTGs, playing key roles in your ability to comprehend metaphor and analogy. There is an even further specialization between the two aSTGs: The right-side aSTG is specialized around recognizing more abstract and distant semantic associations.
A few years ago, a team of cognitive neuroscientists set out to determine just what parts of the brain were used when people reported experiencing insight. Mark Jung-Beeman, Edward Bowden, John Kounios2 designed an experiment in which people tried to solve complicated word problems while lying in a giant MRI machine or while hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG). Typical of the problems was this one: “A compound word is one made up by joining two shorter words, like base and ball to make baseball. Here are three words: pine, crab, sauce. What one word, when added to each of these three, creates three sensible compound words?” Subjects had 30 seconds to solve this problem. If a subject got an answer, and experienced a sudden “Ah-ha” insight into the solution, they pressed a button. If they could not solve the problem, or if they solved it by a methodical approach, there was no button press.
One-third of a second before an insight (“Ah-ha”) sensation was reported, the right-side aSTG had begun to fire, emitting electrical waves for about one second. The energy emitted had a frequency of 39 Hz. On a piano, strike the third black key from the left, the lowest D#, to hear a tone of 39 Hz. The researchers suggested that this activity marked the emergence of the solution from unconscious processes into conscious thought. If you solved the above word problem with insight, the word “apple” suddenly surfaced into your consciousness as your right-side aSTG fired.
There is another burst of brain activity especially associated with insight. Visual processing takes place in the rear of the brain. When an insight was reported, the subject’s right-side visual cortex emitted a very low frequency (6-10 Hz) alpha wave for about one second. The alpha wave started early, pulsing for about 1 second, and ending just before the aSTG pulse started. Low frequency alpha waves are thought to inhibit brain activity—they are connected to rest, sleep, and meditation. The researchers believe that this one second pulse temporarily shuts down high level visual processing on the right side, allowing other regions of the right hemisphere to concentrate on weaker internal signals without so much distraction.
Run your finger up the back of your head to a spot about one inch above an imaginary hat band and about one inch over to the right from the center. That is where the alpha pulse occurs 1.4 seconds before a feeling of insight. That pulse allows your inward vision to take over, free from the distraction of normal sight. And when that pause ends, you sense a flash as full visual processing is restored and the right-side aSTG pushes the answer into consciousness. The phrase “flash of insight” is not just a figure of speech.
- Gleick, James. Genius. New York: Pantheon, 1992, p. 315. [↩]
- Jung-Beeman, Mark; Bowden, Edward M.; Haberman, Jason; Frymiare, Jennifer L.; Arambel-Liu, Stella; Greenblatt, Richard; Reber, Paul J.; and John Kounios. “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight,” PLoS Biology, 2, April 2004:500-510. [↩]