Gaining Insights

She was known as the Insight Whisperer. Like the more famous horse whisperers, she had an intuitive connection with data and information and could gleam insights that others missed. Her insights were essential to gaining a deeper understanding of what was really important.

As Joyce Bolton was nearing retirement, she was asked to sit down for an interview to see what she might be able to share with others about her search for insights. The interview was with Mark Washington.

M.W. – Thanks for agreeing to share your insight about insights. Let me start by asking: where do you start?

J.B. –      I learned something from Ernest Hemingway when he was struggling with getting started writing. He said: “I start with one true sentence.” I try to start with one true fact from the data and information I’m looking at.

M.W. –  And how does that help?

J.B. –      You’d be surprised by how hard that is to do. You would think you could find true facts from data, but it’s tough. Then I ask myself, why can’t I find true facts? Often there are contradictions in the data. That’s a valuable source of insights. Just understanding the contradictions can be very revealing.

M.W. – Surely there are data where there are no contradictions, can’t those be your source of true facts?

J.B. –      Again, you’d think so, but then I have to ask myself: Is the data averaging out the true insights? Does everyone see the same thing? Understanding the data and information from different viewpoints can be very insightful.

M.W. – I’m becoming convinced that true facts are hard to find. Are there other reasons for the difficulty of finding a true fact?

J.B. –      There are. One thing I have to ask myself: Is this information or data connected to other information or data? Statisticians would call that cross-correlation, but I like to think of it as muddying the water.

M.W. – Why is that?

J.B. –      It’s a matter of dependence. If the data or information only contains samples where those two things always occur together, what would happen if they didn’t occur together? I call this a “what’s missing” insight.

M.W. – What are other challenges in finding a true fact?

J.B. –      I’m always suspicious of the source of the data and how questions were asked.

M.W. – And what does this tell you?

J.B. –      These can lead to bias insights. Did we get a wrong picture because of how we worded a question?  You would be surprised by how many national surveys have a bias in them.

M.W. – I know we are about out of time. Are there any other challenges in finding the one true fact?

J.B. –      Oh, there are many more. But one that I look for especially is risk insights. I ask myself: what if this insight is wrong? If the insight consequences being wrong are great, I’ll try to give multiple interpretations so that others can see my doubts.

M.W. – But you never found your one true fact?

J.B. –      Now you realize that hunting for insights is not looking for facts. You are searching for meaning rather than facts. Insights are a story of what may be, not what is. That’s what makes them so valuable.

M.W. – I must say, this has been fascinating but I’m not sure if gaining insights is an art or science. What do you think?

J.B. –      I think it’s a craft that needs to be developed as any other craft skill is developed. Every time you practice your craft, you need to think: how can I do better the next time?

When you look at world history, major turning points were the result of insights gained by an individual. Momentous decisions, discoveries, innovations, works of art, and the structures of everyday life were developed by a person’s insights. And think of how much attention we place on showing people how to develop insights. Virtually none!

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“We are surrounded by data, but starved for insights.” – Jay Baer (Author, marking consultant)



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