5 Proven Ways To Generate Leading Edge Insights

You will be surprised by what happens if you can get the right balance between thinking broadly and deeply.


We all crave those elusive 'Eureka' moments.

Seemingly out of nowhere comes an idea for something new, or a feeling that your understanding of a topic has reached a new level. Then the adrenaline kicks in: the mind races, the heart beats and you feel great.

Certainly at Nakono, 'Eureka' moments are a fundamental part of our value proposition, without which it would be impossible to differentiate our analysis from that of rivals.

But where do these 'Eureka' moments come from?

Here are five actions you can take to increase the number of 'Eureka' moments your brain is generating:

  1. Dive in and embrace complexity:  Fear not, because your mind will adapt
  2. Think across multiple sectors:  Do not restrict your thinking to one specific field
  3. Be prepared to do real work:  Consuming information is different to understanding
  4. Beware linear, structured thinking:  Consensus thinking is not breakthrough thinking
  5. Choose the correct level of abstraction:  Go deep when needed, not for the sake of it

Dive in and embrace complexity

Whatever your field, chances are that it’s gotten a lot more complex over the last few years: more information to process, more complex technology to understand, more channels to manage, more competitors to fight off and more.

So, yes, pretty complex all round.

But digital markets today are not 'just' complex – they are getting more complex every year, and there is no sign of convergence or stability up ahead.

You might find this pretty depressing because it implies that at some point we'll all end up in a fog of confusion where we accept that it has all become:

T-O-O H-A-R-D

And that's a pretty terrifying thought for a professional technology industry analyst, like me.

But don't worry - it's all good, and here's why:

While there is a clear trend towards more complexity, the complexity is increasing more slowly than the mind's ability to comprehend that complexity.

This might sound impossible (or just optimistic) but I've certainly found it to be true, and here's why:

Two magical things happen when you spend a lot of mental energy on understanding a large, complex field – like the entire digital economy, in my case:

  • Your rate of learning actually speeds up as you go along: I am absolutely certain that I'm learning at a faster rate today than I was only 2 years ago. This is because the understanding I have accumulated so far can be applied to new topics which means that those topics can be understood faster than before or, in other words, they seem easier to grasp and less intimidating.
     
  • Your 'abstraction' level naturally adapts: As the complexity you're dealing with increases, your mental energy automatically shifts to understanding new topics and processing new information - rather than simply adding more detail to topics that are already well understood.

I have to be honest with you: there was a time around five years ago when I felt unable to cope with the complexity of the markets I was trying to understand. I knew that I had to get a grip on 'everything' but I worried that maybe I'd taken on too much...

But I stuck with it because I knew deep down inside that there was no other way.

Today, looking back, I realise that those feelings of doubt were because I was not yet at the 'critical mass' point: while my total understanding was pretty good, it was not at the point where I was able to harvest the benefits from the accumulated learning.

But now I can.

I'm so glad I kept driving hard, because the 'Eureka' moments are now coming thick and fast. For sure, it's been a hard road but you just have to keep going because it gets easier.

Think across multiple sectors

When we started in 2003 Nakono (then Generator Research) was focused on digital music, and that was pretty much all we did for the first 18 months.

But then digital music moved from being restricted to PCs and MP3 players to mobile phones, which meant we needed to start including mobile in our research.

Soon after that, music services started showing up on TV sets so then we needed to do TV as well. Mobile music led to mobile content and music TV led to internet TV, and so the process continued - for 13 years, actually.

Today, Nakono covers markets as different as artificial intelligence, driverless cars, smart homes and digital advertising. We still do music, but that is now just a small part of our offering.

Our scope has ended up being broad because that is the reality of today's digital economy: all of these markets are connected in multiple ways, either in terms of the underlying technologies, economics or even specific aspects of the value proposition.

Restricting your focus to one part of the market will probably mean that you will not see the 'joined up' nature of the digital economy: some of our best insights are the direct result of seeing connections between one part of the digital economy and another part.

Be prepared to do real work

It is impossible to properly understand a complex field simply by passively consuming information.

White papers, blog posts, audio books, infographics, research reports and YouTube videos are all really great, but they just represent the start of the learning process - not the end.

The best you can hope for is that the passive consumption of material like this will provide you with basic facts, concepts and ideas.

But as any teacher will confirm, being able to recite facts is not the same as understanding the meaning of those facts.

True, there is an overlap - meaning that understanding cannot happen without facts - but there is also a difference.

In my field, understanding means:

  • Explaining a complex technology or market situation
  • Speaking to people who know more than you
  • Documenting in words and diagrams how the technology or market works
  • Performing calculations on the market's potential
  • Thinking carefully about the impact on related markets
  • Defining use cases and product applications that make vague concepts tangible

It is only by getting stuck in and forcing yourself to get to grips with the topic that you will get those 'Eureka' moments.

If you are unable to invest the time needed to understand things 'properly' then that's OK - but only if you rely on sources that you know have done the 'hard yards' for you.

Beware linear, structured thinking

I once read that an expert was someone who "knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing." Ha, Ha.

But joking aside, there's an element of truth in this: I have found that many scholarly thinkers are uncomfortable when confronted with orthogonal thinking or when asked about the future.

The main reason for this is that scientific progress and consensus thinking is mainly based on making verifiable statements, which means that orthogonal thinking is usually rejected as being unsupported or baseless.

This is somewhat paradoxical, given that orthogonal thinking has been the source of practically every major scientific advance to date.

The implication is that when seeking expert counsel it is important to be attuned to the type of mind you are probably dealing with, which is unlikely to be adept at analysing concepts that fall outside their field of expertise, and especially not when it comes to the future.

When I worked in the corporate world I recall the annual 'strategic planning' process which was closer to a paperwork exercise: the budgets and overall direction were fixed and so nobody was doing any actual 'strategic planning'.

I also remember being involved in 'innovation workshops' where a group of random people would be assembled in a room with a consultant and be expected to produce some breakthrough ideas in a single day.

That doesn't work, no.

To be clear, I'm not saying that academics cannot think about the future (they can - and climate forecast modelling proves that) and I am not saying that structured processes cannot produce great ideas (used in the right way, they absolutely do).

Instead, what I'm saying is that 'Eureka' moments are mainly the outcome of a deep understanding of a complex area and so there are limits to what can be accomplished if the field is too narrow, the process too structured, or both.

Choose the correct level of abstraction

It is easy to understand the digital economy at a high level very quickly - say by looking at a table that lists the market segments and their economic value. But such a superficial understanding is insufficient as a basis for innovative thinking.

At the other extreme, an attempt to understand every aspect of the digital economy down to the level of every constituent market, company, product and technology would be pointless: such an approach would be extremely inefficient because of the vast amount of duplicate and irrelevant information.

Just as the brain uses abstraction to process visual information and economists use abstraction to model the economy, Nakono has had to choose the right level of abstraction to analyse the digital economy.

The 'right' level of abstraction means knowing what is important, and what is not. And it also means knowing when you need to dive deep, and where you do not.

How do you get this balance right? You have to check your level of understanding which, as mentioned above, should be measured using two criteria:

  • Test 1: Can you convey the core ideas to an outsider in a way that makes sense?
     
  • Test 2:  Can you easily write several pages of completely original content that builds on the subject in a practical way (and that means no internet connection)?

When the answers to these two questions are 'yes' then you've gone deep enough, but if not then keep going!

While there is no shortcut to being able to produce breakthrough thinking, the good news is that practically anyone is capable of making intellectual leaps that might seem so elusive.