Think about the last time you solved a business problem, such as coming up with a new product idea, formulating a new marketing plan, or deciding which job candidate to hire. How did you do it. Did you sit down with the facts and figures, make pro/con lists, and analyze the situation until you found the solution? Or did it come to you as a sudden insight--an "Aha!" moment, as some people call it?
It turns out many problems can be solved either of these two ways. But the two methods are not equal. In a fascinating experiment, a research team at Northwestern University led by Carola Salvi, set out to learn whether analysis or insight leads to better problem-solving. To find out, they presented more than 200 students at Northwestern and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy were given various problems to solve that included word puzzles, anagrams, rebuses, and a puzzle where you had to identify a partial image of an object.
Each of these problems can be solved with either insight or analysis. Subjects were given about 15 seconds to solve each puzzle, and asked to report whether they'd carefully worked out the solution or found it by insight. As it turned out, the solutions that were found by insight were more likely to be the right answer than those that were arrived at by analysis. Significantly more likely. Insight answers were right about 94 percent of the time, while analysis answers were only right about 78 percent of the time.
Why insight won.
Why is insight better? Analysis usually involves taking a problem and breaking it down into pieces or steps that can be addressed individually. If you make a mistake on any one of these pieces without realizing it, that mistake can throw off the entire process. Meanwhile, insight may seem like it came out of nowhere, but usually it's a synthesis of information you already know and deductions you make almost at an unconscious level.
Also, because insight is an all-or-nothing approach, research has shown that people who tend to solve problems by insight are also more likely to run out of time to provide any kind of answer than their analytic counterparts are.
What does this fascinating study tell you about your own problem-solving and decision-making? Although it may take longer, it seems clear that finding solutions by insight will likely lead to better answers to the conundrums you face than step-by-step analysis. But how do you become more insightful?
Let your mind wander.
There's a reason so many flashes of inspiration come to people in the shower. It's one of the few times you stop reading, stop watching video, and you (usually) are not conversing with anyone. Your mind is slightly bored and free to meander, and it's this slight boredom and meandering that often leads to bright ideas you never would have had if you'd been sitting at your desk working to come up with them.
Problem-solving can work the same way. If you stop working at the problem and let your mind wander, say by looking out a window for a few moments, that actually allows different parts of your brain to communicate with each other. It's likely to result in the insight you seek, especially since many insights are really a matter of connecting two previously unconnected elements, people, or ideas.
Try it next time you have a difficult problem to figure out. You might just wind up solving it by insight. And we could all use a few more "Aha!" moments in our lives.