IPMA International Project Management Association
23 September 2020 / 9:00

Insight Curve: How to harness its power for PM effectiveness?

Clarity is power and a priceless asset. Developing a deeper and clearer understanding of a phenomenon, a situation, a problem, or a concept is often the difference between gloom and glory. Having a clear, deep and “sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation” is called as insight (Cambridge dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/insight). Kiefer and Constable, (2013) describe insights as specific thoughts “often providing new understanding about something.”

The moment a person gains clarity of understanding or some new understanding often results in a reaction ‘Aha, now I understand’. Napier, (2010) argues that this ‘Aha moment’ signifies the occurrence of an insight. The author further suggests that insights can be categorized into two types of ‘Aha moments’. The first describes the instance when a person understands something with clarity and go ‘Aha, I get it’, and the second describes an instance when a person is able to develop a new idea or form a new creative thought/perspective by understanding the information in a new way or by giving new meaning to existing knowledge called as ‘creative Aha’ or a creative insight (Napier, 2010).

Given the above, developing insights is considered pivotal to making sound decisions and taking appropriate actions. Having insights can help solve problems, reduce risks and issues, and enhance the quality of actions and outputs. However, building an ability to become insight-full takes time and effort. The ability can be developed over time with experience, deliberate efforts, knowledge acquisition and practice. Such a progression can be depicted through an insight curve.

An insight curve (or insight S curve) is similar in concept to a learning curve and is the representation of a process or journey of gaining insights naturally in relation to a concept, problem, situation, phenomenon over time as a result of accumulated experience and absorption of information/knowledge (Napier, 2010; https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/learning-curve). Progression on the insight curve is not the same for everyone and differs from person to person depending on how much effort goes into the process. Hence, in hindsight, continuously making efforts to progress and move upwards along the curve should be helpful.

The use of insight curve is very important to be effective at a professional level, as often the performance of work requires comprehension of tasks, problem-solving, dealing with new situations and being creative. In particular, the performance of project work – which is constrained by several elements – requires clarity, understanding and creativity to get the job done in a timely and desirable manner. Developing natural abilities to be insightful could therefore greatly help in the performance of project work.

Then the question is: what could be done to develop insights and how to harness the power of insights for the performance of project work? To answer the question, below we look at some of the possible strategies to develop insights and then we look at some of the ways in which the power of insights could be harnessed for the performance of project work.

Potential strategies to develop insights

  1. Break down and think of the sequence

One of the ways to gain clarity is to deconstruct the phenomenon, situation, problem in constituent parts to see through it. It helps in analyzing the information better, understanding the sequence and linkages among the parts, asking questions, and identifying areas that may not be clearly understood. Such an approach leads to gaining a deeper understanding, being able to find new meaning and new perspective, and ultimately reaching the instance of being insightful.

The approach is successfully used in project management. Techniques such as work breakdown structure (WBS), resource breakdown structure (RBS) and lifecycle modelling enable project teams to create a mental image of various constituent parts of a situation (often considering how things should happen or will happen) leading to breaking down the complexity in a simpler form to gain a more clear understanding and insights about the work.

  1. Observe, observe and observe

The human sensors (i.e. vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste) undoubtedly play a significant role in helping people gain clarity and understanding things in new ways. By using these sensors people observe the situation, things, moving and static elements, vibrations in the environment, and store the facts and perceptions gained through such observations in their brains. Such information can then be recalled at any point in time to connect dots and to give new meaning to a matter, phenomenon or a problem under consideration leading to insights.

  1. Be receptive to insights occurrence

To gain insights one should be receptive to insight occurrence. Often people have strong pre-conceived thoughts about a thing or a situation. They become so much absorbed into their pre-conceived understanding that they are unable or reluctant to be receptive to new perspectives and ways of looking at the things from a different orientation. For instance, a person working in a certain profession or a domain may become so much engrossed in his/her profession that s/he becomes oblivious to the outside professional boundary happenings and changes. In hindsight, it will impede the receptiveness of insights as a person may form a tunnel vision of things.

Kiefer and Constable, (2013) suggest that insights occur in a variety of settings and hence one should be receptive to insight occurrence. The authors note that insights could occur while walking, showering, playing with children, daydreaming and so on so forth. To be more receptive to insights, one should not discount occurrence of even small insights such as being able to find something that your spouse may have kept at “a never-before-used spot”, as smaller insights are the conduit to developing receptiveness to gaining larger insights.

  1. Insight listening

Kiefer and Constable, (2013) suggested that one of the strategies to gain frequent insights is to learn to listen for insights. The authors argue that when a person develops insight listening capability, it amplifies the possibility of gaining insights. It is like training brain to look out for new thoughts and gaining clarity of understanding about a thing of interest. However, it is also pertinent to note that insights could occur not just for things that you may be thinking about, but also for unrelated things or a matter. Hence by developing insight listening capabilities, one can enhance their chances of broadening their understanding horizon about a variety of matters – they may be actively thinking actively or not so actively about.

  1. Look out for sparks and under-currents to trigger insights

Insights generation can also be amplified by focusing on sparks and under-currents that generate thoughts. As such sparks can lead to triggering a new pattern of thoughts leading to new ideas, new understanding and the new meaning of an existing phenomenon. For instance, when we work on computers, often we encounter a range of issues such as access errors, transaction issues and software failures, just to mention a few. While troubleshooting such issues or getting the issues troubleshooted we go through a journey and come across various instances of small sparks and under-currents of thoughts which help us find or think of new ways of looking at the problems/issues and get them resolved. So, looking out for such sparks and not discounting them as mere random thoughts could be very useful for amplifying insight occurrence as well (Kiefer and Constable, 2013).

Strategies to amplify insight occurrence and harness power of insights for project work

  1. Ask questions which make people think and get to ‘Aha moment’

Project work is a team-based activity and often executed in a well-defined (or at least in a loosely defined), contained structure. This pre-defined, short-term grouping pf people provides an excellent opportunity to harness the power of insights by encouraging people to ask questions from each other. Asking questions (in a supportive non-concerning manner) trigger thoughts and generation of ‘Aha moments.’ It may be that the new understanding or clarity of understanding may not occur immediately when the question(s) is/are asked, but it certainly creates an environment of triggering the occurrence of insights after a while when people do their task or something else. The question posed is likely to remain in sub-conscious and could get processed at any time leading to insights, ultimately helping project delivery.

  1. Read into data for getting insights

The ongoing generation and storage of a multitude of data are necessitating the use of data for productive purposes. Therefore, taking a data-driven approach is becoming a common occurrence these days. Project organizations can use both, hard and soft data to gain insights. Hard data could be information on markets, environment and other related aspects that could help in project feasibility and also design and delivery of projects. Other types of hard data could be in the form of results, deliverables produced, efforts expanded and earned value (EV) calculations can help gain clarity on how things are going and also identifying any new avenues of work or changes. Whereas, soft data could be data based on observations, feelings, evaluations, impressions, and interactions that the project team gathered during the course of project delivery (Pitagorsky, n.d.).

  1. Leverage upon simplifying techniques such as WBS, PLC

Using classic project management techniques such as WBS, PLC, PBS (product breakdown structure), and other modelling approaches could also be very handy in gaining insights. The philosophy behind the creation of WBS is to gain clarity. Hence if people know how to create a WBS, they can easily extrapolate that understanding to gain clarity in relation to something else by taking the same approach as they do when they create a WBS. Gaining insights is thus not about learning something new, but using the existing PM techniques and applying it to a context beyond it is generally used for project delivery.

  1. Create an environment of sharing knowledge and information

An environment of knowledge sharing certainly contributes to gaining insights. Given that project teams are made up of a countable number of team members, it offers an opportunity to encourage people to share knowledge and allow people to develop insights.

  1. Build team insights: Collective team insights will be useful

Every team member has a role to play during project delivery, which makes it useful to build a culture of team insights. Rather than relying on one person to generate insights or making one responsible for creating ideas, it would serve better if everyone within the team makes efforts to gain clarity in relation to project work and let the natural creativity unfold.

Concluding thoughts:
The human brain has a wealth of potential that could be harnessed for growth and positive development. However, for people to reach their full potential and use their natural capabilities, gaining clarity and understanding of whatever work they are doing is important. Because having clarity empowers and motivates people to further their work. When people understand things better, they are more likely going to enjoy their work.

Given the above, we have argued that learning to listen, acknowledge and gain insights is critical for both project and non-project-based work. The key thing to remember is that people have natural capabilities to be insightful. All they need to do is to unlock the hidden potential. In this regard, we have presented some potential learning strategies to help people go up the insight learning curve and enhance their capabilities to gain insights, which ultimately empower them to contribute to their personal and professional growth.

Kiefer, C. F., & Constable, M. (2013). The art of insight: How to have more Aha! moments. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Napier, N.K. (2010). Insight: Encouraging Aha! Moments for Organizational Success: Encouraging Aha! Moments for Organizational Success. Praeger.
Pitagorsky, G. (n.d.). Project Insight: What It Is and How to Get It, https://www.projecttimes.com/george-pitagorsky/project-insight-what-it-is-and-how-to-get-it.html

Professor Jiwat Ram
© 2020 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.