My Insights About “What is an Insight?”​


Dr. Craig Fleisher, Chief Learning Officer, Aurora WDC

5.12.2018 (originally published 2.9.2017)


Have any of you worked for hours, days or weeks on an analytical project only to have your requesting client or demanding boss react with one of these comments upon receiving the deliverable:

·        “There’s really nothing new here.”

·        “So what? I already knew that!”

·        “Why didn’t I see/think of that before?”

·        “Really? How can that be right?”

·        “Wow. I wish I had known or thought of that”

Some of these common reactions suggest a dearth of delivered insights, others suggest that you might have created one. I have been researching, speaking, studying, teaching and/or writing about analysis and analytical processes in and among leading global brands for three decades; surprisingly, even in the minority of organizations with insights departments and professionals, I haven’t experienced or heard of more than a few organizations that can systematically identify, appreciate and leverage insights.

A goal shared by many of the analysts I have worked with during that time is to regularly deliver powerful insights that move their businesses or organizations ahead in a competitive, dynamic, VUCA-filled (i.e., volatile, uncertain, complex, & ambiguous) world. Plentiful praise and raises, among other things, await those analysts who succeed. Frustration, exasperation and other job paths typically await those who fail to generate insights. So, what are these elusive outcomes we refer to as insights? Are they all the same? How can we know whether we’ve generated one?

Characteristics of Insights

In my experience, I would suggest that for a deliverable to truly be an insight, it must be characterized by at least the following six qualities. To the extent it fails any one or more of these, it likely falls short of true “insight” status:

1. Insights are rare. They cannot be conventional in nature or broadly representative of the population of ideas around the targeted outcome. It must pass both the “what?” and “so what?” tests, and better still, the “now what?” one. Many analysts may only generate one or two insights for their organizations during their careers. This can still lead them to be viewed as significant contributors if the ones made were valuable enough to properly compensate the organization for the investment they made in their analysts and analysis processes.

2. Insights are asymmetric. If the analyst uncovers a fact, relationship, secret, trend or phenomenon that no one else knows, it is far more likely to be an insight. If the result is something that others know, and offers no new, uniquely perceived context or data, then it is not an insight, or at least not likely to be a valuable insight. Insights nearly always surface previously unearthed assumptions, challenge the status quo, and topple existing conventions. Asymmetry means that insights are unearthed when your analysts and organization ask questions that no one else is asking. When insightful, you and your organization have unique answers, products/services, or solutions and can act on them, that others do not and/or cannot act on.

3. Insights are relational and unequal. A powerful insight to one individual in an organization might be commonplace knowledge to another. For a deliverable to really be an insight, it must motivate deep understanding and action for those individuals or groups who have the decision-making authority, resources, leadership, plans, and/or motivation to solve a vexing problem or exploit a great window of opportunity. Lastly to this point, not all insights are of equal importance. The best insights offer a new meaning and a clear, unequivocal sense of making a significant difference for both the organization and its stakeholders.

4. Insights are combinatorial. Like having the magic ticket for winning the big lottery jackpot, it is exceedingly rare that an analyst will fortuitously find a “needle (the insight) in a haystack (the context).” Today’s reality demonstrates that there are too few needles and too many haystacks (think “big data” firehoses digitally created by mobile devices) to pore through; additionally, most people look for those elusive needles in similar haystacks and/or use the same analytical, development, discovery, or innovation processes, anyway. These practices guarantee regression to the mean, and a resultant lack of rarity. The analysts who truly uncover the insights combine a unique and different vision of the what the needles look like, scrutinize diverse haystacks, and/or use unusual or creative processes – involving orchestrated admixtures of both the human mind and technology – to find them.

5. Insights are ephemeral. The raw materials, such as needs, feelings, data, attitudes, even recent behavior that an analyst shapes and combines to create an insight are likely, at a minimum, to be dynamic. A valid insight is applied to a specific relational and temporal context, and those contexts may be fleeting in and of themselves. As such, upon its tentative discovery, an insight should be challenged both internally by other open-minded analysts as well as tested in the so-called ‘real-world’ of markets, competition and customers. Only when tested against these actors and phenomena over time will the true power of an insight be discerned.

6. Insights are clearly communicated and applied to important contexts (i.e., organizational challenges and opportunities). The best insights, though often “secretive” – at least internally at first, will closely connect with, illuminate and inspire stakeholders in obvious ways that the organization “gets” or truly understands the stakeholder at a deeper emotional, logical and/or even a spiritual level. It likely solves a problem for the stakeholder in a way that hadn’t been tried before, and took them down a path toward a solution not seen before. The best insights pass the “now what?” test; consequently, they create and accelerate growth by connecting and creating more supportive stakeholders in the process of their experiencing and interacting with the insight.

Knowing what an insight is the first step in learning to develop them, a separate topic of mine for another day. It is my hope that this piece provides readers with a valuable new understanding or perspective. So, did my piece on insights generate one for you, or did I fall short? And if I did fall short, would you please be kind enough to help me move closer to insight? Thanks!


Dr. Craig S. Fleisher is the Chief Learning Officer at Aurora WDC. A widely published and one of the globe’s most highly   cited authors of fourteen books including Business and   Competitive Analysis 2nd Ed. (Pearson, 2015), SAGE   Handbook of International and Corporate Affairs (2017), Analysis Without Paralysis 2nd Ed. (FT Press, 2013), Competitive Intelligence and Global Business (Praeger, 2005), and Strategic and Competitive Analysis (Pearson, 2003), and 150+ scholarly articles and book chapters, he has twice been a business school dean, endowed university research chair holder, and a tenured, full professor at four Canadian and U.S. universities.

Vice President of the Council of Competitive Intelligence Fellows, Craig has been President of SCIP, Chair of the CI Foundation, and Editor of the Journal of CI and Management. He won the field’s highest annual recognition, the Meritorious Award. Craig is a member of the Canadian Who’s Who, Who’s Who in America, serves and educates blue-chip clients across the globe. Contact Craig at or see his full profile.