9 August 2010

Some thoughts on insight (and bicycles)

Some thoughts on insight (and bicycles): "

Tom Ewing has a really nice post on the history of 'insight' over on his Blackbeard Blog, and there are some really good comments (and mine).

Here are a few thoughts from me on insight.

Most research needs are not met by insight, they are met by information, carefully analysed, filtered, and presented, but information. How many X are we selling, which of these versions of Y is going to sell best, what are housewives actually using Z for? These all examples of information, not insight, and these are the sorts of things clients need on a regular basis, they also sometimes need insight, but not so often and not in such large amounts - indeed most money is made from operationalising insight, not from having the insight.

The Concise Oxford has two definitions for insight, both useful in their own way.

1) "The capacity to gain an accurate and intuitive understanding of something". What makes this interesting is that it has to be intuitive and accurate. Giving somebody a formula they can use is not insight, because they don't intuitively understand it (you may recall that the volume of a sphere is given by 4/3πr3, but do you intuitively understand it?) Giving somebody an unreliable answer is not insight, because it is not accurate (for example, saying to somebody that if you are allowed to carry a weapon you will be safer). So, an insight has to be something that they did not know, that provides a deep understanding, that is accurate, and which having been given the information, is understood intuitively (not just remembered as facts, in the way that children in the UK used to be taught the kings and queens of England).

2) the second definition is drawn from psychiatry, "awareness by a mentally ill person that their mental experiences are not based on in external reality". So, perhaps finding a way to convince your client that everybody does not in fact love them, that objectively their product is not the best, or that despite what their advertising agency is saying, this new idea is not 'a paradigm breaking, outside of the box, disruptive revolution' counts as insight too?


With a hat tip to Robert Pirsig, here is an example of insight in context of bicycles. Please note, I have just made this up this evening (the example, not the facts), so I hope it works!

Have you ever wondered why the front wheel on a penny-farthing bicycle was so big? If you already know this then it probably won't be an insight for you. Think about riding a bike, to go faster you peddle faster. But, there is a limit to how fast most of us can peddle, in many cases this will be about 60 turns per minute (Lance Armstrong does about 120 turns per minute). If you do not have gears or cogs then each turn of the peddle is equal to one turn of the drive wheel (on modern bikes the back wheel, but on the penny-farthing the front wheel). The distance you travel, per turn of the peddle, is set by the size of the wheel. If you have a small wheel, then one turn is not very far, if you have a big wheel, then one turn is further.

With a 24 inch wheel, peddling at 60 turns a minute will generate a very modest 4.3 miles per hour (about 6.9 kilometres per hour). However, if the drive wheel were expanded to 53 inches (about 1.4m) then 60 turns a minute would generate about 9.5 miles per hour (15.1 kph). This is why over the course of a few years the wheels on bikes became so big and the penny-farthing was developed.

So, the insight is that penny-farthings had bigger wheels so that they could achieve speeds faster than a quick walking pace, and they disappeared when bike makers started to use a chain, which by using a different sized cog on the front wheel and back wheel, allowed the drive wheel to rotate at a different speed to the peddles. If the cog next to the peddles has twice as many teeth as the cog by the wheel, the back wheel will turn twice every time the peddles go round once, and wheels can now be the same size.

Adding gears to a bike means the cyclist can choose how many times the back wheel will go round, by changing which front and back cog are in use. To go down a hill the rider might want one turn of the peddles to turn the back wheel several times, because down hill is easy, but going uphill the rider might want 1 turn of the peddle to only turn the back wheel once, making the effort required much less.

Hopefully, if you have stayed with me, you now have an intuitive idea of why the penny-farthing had a big wheel, to go faster, and an insight into a major reason why it died out, a solution was found that was safer and easier to ride (the penny-farthing was very prone to headers - a fall forward over the front wheel). If you have gone from not knowing this to now 'feeling' like you understand it, then that is an insight into how bikes work, as opposed to just a piece of knowledge.

If this example worked for you, let me know, if it didn't, please let me know