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Insights, appreciative enquiry, and an antidote to biases and heuristics

Insights, appreciative enquiry, and an antidote to biases and heuristics


Klein studied over a 100 cases of insight in order to work out what causes, or what the conditions for having an insight are…

He starts by identifying what insight is. He says:

Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive, more useful. They change how we act, see feel and desire. They change how we understand.

This is useful. It helps to set a high bar for what researchers should be promising and delivering our clients. If we claim to be ‘insight people’ then we need to make sure that we change how people understand with the work we do.

Klein identifies three ways in which insights happen:

  1. through noticing anomalies or contradictions (this type of insight is akin to the ‘scientific revolutions’ that the philosopher Kuhn identified – where a new, better truth emerges, sometimes experienced as a Eureka moment)
  2. through contradiction, coincidence or curiosity (this type of insight emerges as a result of investigation, pulling on a thread, following the clues in the data. This insight might grow rather than suddenly be delivered in a flash of inspiration
  3. through desperation, when someone is pushed to the limits, and only a new way of seeing or understanding will save the day. The example Klein gives us of this way of gaining insight is of a firefighter who was saved when he realised that he could protect himself from a fast advancing fire by starting another one – desperation saved the day – ‘Breaking Bad’ style insight!

Klein’s book is called
Seeing what others don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insights which might imply he is delivering a manual on how to ‘do’ insight. He isn’t, and he’s pretty realistic about what creates the conditions for insight. He identifies personality types which re more open minded and flexible and therefore more likely to have the capacity for insight, but points out that sometimes being a contrarian – someone who is naturally sceptical – can also deliver insight because they are prepared to see contradictions where others won’t…

However, Klein does have useful words for people specifically seeking insight – researchers. He identifies a way of interviewing people called ‘appreciative enquiry’ which provides us with a useful template for how we get to understand what’s going on in people’s minds, what is motivating their behaviour, what their beliefs and values are. He suggests:

When trying to understand why people acted in a certain way, you might use a short checklist to guide your probing:

  • their knowledge
  • their beliefs
  • their experience
  • motivations
  • competing priorities
  • their constraints

Klein explores how people behave in real life. This is what sets him apart from Behavioural Economists – he doesn’t set up experiments (as they do), he explores how people behave in context. I don’t think he dismisses the ‘biases and heuristics’ camp, but he does see positives where they see negatives. Behavioural economists have identified how flawed our decision making can be, but he focuses on our unique capacity for insight, and how by using ‘appreciative enquiry’ we can see how others see, think and feel, and we can help explore with them their view of the world, and help them too get closer to insight.

Gary Klein is clearly a qualitative thinker!


Kath Rhodes, Qual Street Owner

I love love learning and so I invest time and resources with Ambreen and Claire into exploring social psychology, neuro science, creativity and new techniques in research. Read all about it and help yourself to the ideas that will deliver your business the insight it needs

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