Book review: Seeing What Others Don’t

Bisociation KoestlerOne of the most contested aspects of creativity is the act of creation itself. Research psychologist Gary Klein is the latest author to examine the process

The act of creation has been associated with insight arguably since the origins of the myth of Archimedes and his eureka bathtub moment. Even the prestigious and very serious American Association for the Advancement of Science calls its breaking news site EurekAlert.

As a (much younger) creativity researcher and scientist, I remember poring over a classic of the field, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. The Eureka Moment received its updating as an Aha! Moment, which Koestler modeled in the image above as the sudden co-location of two mental fields.

Insight is a research topic which is difficult to deal with in a thoroughly modern way in accord with the dominant rational model of scientific enquiry.

That is not to say that good work has not be done, although rarely too distant from controversy. Perkins, for example, in a much-cited book, set out the case for dismissing the entire idea of insight and any contributions to effective thinking from subconscious processes.

From curiosity to scientific enquiry

Gary Klein suggested that his book came about by a process of serendipitous discovery. He re-examined his backlog of journalistic notes and clippings about the processes of decision making and discovery. His initial behaviour was more a matter of curiosity than of goal-directed or rational search. Eventually, curiosity turned into a more systematic and thoughtful inquiry.

In one sense, in preparing and writing the book, Klein was retracing his own journey of insightful discovery.

The research question

For some years, Klein had been thinking about and discussing the nature of performance improvement. In his lectures, he posed the question how might people be helped to gain expertise and make insightful decisions. He argued that performance improvement concentrates too exclusively on reduction of errors. He suggested the quite different way of gaining substantial improvements through increasing creative insights.

The situations studied

He examined over a hundred reported incidents of situations, some in which opportunities for creative insights had been achieved, such as Martin Chalfie’s discovery of a fluorescent marker that revolutionized Cancer research. Other incidents were those during which the opportunities were missed. An example of one such failure was that of the financial community which failed to notice that Bernie Madoff was not a genius investor, but someone running a criminal ‘Ponzi’ scheme. His criminal scam went on for some years in face of mounting evidence and a whistle-blower whose warnings were ignored.

The five strategies for insights

Klein’s analysis did not reveal a simple ‘killer strategy’ whose application resulted in successful insightful change, and its absence in failure. Rather, he arrived at what might be called the situational result: that is to say, some strategies worked better than others according to the circumstances surrounding the incident. In all he identified five different strategies:

(Creative) Desperation

Connections: Connections were found most frequently within his cases studied. The most celebrated example was Darwin’s connection between the competition theory of Malthus and his own developing theories natural selection.

Coincidences: Coincidences were found to play a part in several significant discoveries. A nice example is the discovery of pulsars, with its major implications for theoretical physics. Jocelyn Burnell, a young research assistant, detected a mysterious signal received through the radio telescope she had built and which was intended for the study of completely different emitters (quasars).
This prompted her to seek and find more and stronger evidence of the anomalous signals. [As Klein pointed out, the subsequent Nobel Prize went to Jocelyn’s supervisor, Anthony Hewish, which is another and different story].

Contradictions: The next approach is grounded in a willingness to take seriously evidence that contradicts experience and conventional wisdom. Various examples were found of individuals who saw signals of an approaching financial crash. These were largely ignored, as the implication was that house prices would slump irreversibly. This contradiction seems to me well-described in the wider body of work on blocks to insight (blinkered thinking or wilful blindness, for example).

A historical example cited is the eventual acceptance that cholera spreads not because of ‘bad air’ but through an infected water source.

Curiosities: Curiosities can be found in several well-known examples of scientific discovery. One of the most celebrated is Fleming’s discovery which led to the development of the penicillin family of drugs. the scientist noticed a ‘contamination’ that killed Staphylococcus bacteria.

Roentgen stumbled upon the potential for X-rays in similar ‘that’s funny’ fashion.

(Creative) Desperation: Klein offers examples from everyday creativity. He might have mentioned the consequences of Louis Pasteur’s first and desperate application of an untested vaccine for rabies on a boy badly bitten by a rabid dog.

Organizational blocks to insights

Klein addresses the question of what blocks organizations from insights. This is one of the most researched topics by researchers into creativity. Unsurprisingly, there is no killer insight here. Nevertheless, he makes a point worthy of further consideration. Many organizations introduce structures for minimizing errors which reduce factors supporting insights.

He adds a specific aspect in his analysis of the processes applied to scientific investigations. Scientists may be too prone to seek the absolute truth, whereas investigative journeys of a more speculative nature may yield richer insights.

Why this book is worth reading

This book deserves attention for several reasons. It is clearly written, and its ideas are based on sound documentation and investigative methodology. It is accessible to professional decision-makers is worth using as study material for courses on creative problem-solving. The final chapters suggest how the ideas may be pulled together into a conceptual ‘map’ with different pathways for triggering insights.

In all, a worthy addition to a personal bookshelf or academic library.

One Response to Book review: Seeing What Others Don’t

  1. From Stieg Larsson’s procedural thriller, The Girl who played with fire.

    Criminal investigator Jan Bublanski was putting a team together for a murder investigation. His first choice was Sonja Modig. That was because

    ‘Bublankski had observed in her the trait he regarded as the most valuable in tricky investigations. She had imagination and the ability to make associations. In [several cases ] Modig had discovered peculiar and improbable connections that all the others had missed …'[p211]

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