Develop Your Insight

Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.Thomas Carlyle


Americans are busy at work.  There is no doubting this claim, and here is just a sample of the overwhelming evidence.

  • Americans work 137 more hours/year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours/year than British workers, and 499 more hours/year than French workers.
  • 85% of men and 66% of women work more than 40 hours per week.
  • 88% of Americans carry devices to communicate with work during vacation.


Americans are busy, yet I often wonder just how much of that activity is guided by insight into the situations these people face.  I wonder because I seem to see the same problems over and over again, problems I attribute to a lack of insight.  These common problems include…

  • giving people “exactly what they asked for” only to discover that what you provided didn’t address their need,
  • watching projects stall because of unacknowledged or unresolved conflicts about goals or requirements,
  • failing to identify or manage dependencies, or
  • implementing solutions that create new, unexpected problems.


One dictionary defines insight as the ability to understand people and situations in a very clear way, or an understanding of the true nature of something.  Insight is an extremely valuable capability.  It can help a person to see connections, recognize dependencies, understand cause and effect, and uncover others’ motives for action.  With enhanced insight, people can add more value through their decisions and actions, reduce errors and re-work, and even anticipate risks and prevent problems.


Following are some steps you can take to develop your own insight at work.

  1. Understand your own viewpoint.  Marshall McLuhan once said “a point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”  Every person is biased in some way, because of values or interests or knowledge or experiences.  This bias is useful – when we use it consciously to make choices.  However, when we act unconsciously on our views, we can misjudge information and make poor decisions.
  2. Understand others’ viewpoints.  Busy people often reduce contact to the “transaction” – what do I need from others or what do they need from me?  By definition, transactional thinking is narrow, and it lacks insight.  Even when managing a transaction, make sure to look at the situation from the other person’s viewpoint – how are their interests or goals different, what information do they have that I lack, or what concerns do they see that I don’t?
  3. Understand cause and effect.  Good leaders focus on what, but great leaders also think about how.  It’s critical to have clear, explicit goals.  It’s even more important to discuss how people will achieve those goals.  Great leaders look for cause and effect, especially related to performance, and they talk about the decisions and actions needed to achieve goals.
  4. Identify and manage dependencies.  I’ve seen countless projects where everyone did exactly as they were told, but the project still failed.  It’s not enough to think about the individual pieces; you must also think about how the pieces fit together and where that fit may be at risk.
  5. Anticipate unintended consequences.  It is not possible to predict all the effects of our choices.  However, if you consider both dependencies and cause and effect, it’s often possible to anticipate where unintended consequences may occur, and even what form they might take.  And, even if you are not completely correct in your prediction, even a bit of foresight can permit you to have your “plan B” ready.


This is only a beginning, but I hope that these ideas can help you to develop and apply your insight into any situation.