Kurt Lewin on Insight

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books

I came across a great essay on insight,  “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation (1946)”, written by Kurt Lewin in a collection of his papers published as “Resolving Social Conflict & Field Theory in Social Science.”  Here are some excerpts and commentary:

Kurt Lewin on Insight

“Insight can always be viewed as a change in the cognitive structure of the situation. It frequently include differentiating and restructuring in the sense of separating certain regions which have been connected and connecting regions that have been connected.”
Kurt Lewin in “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation” (1946)

Entrepreneurs rely on insights for new products, new markets, new customers, and new business models because insights re-arrange our understanding of how things work and enable them to see new possibilities and previously unappreciated connections. Insights obsolete some old understandings and enable new ones. Because they are often sudden and preceded by a feeling of being trapped, stuck, or confused their arrival is hard to predict.

I think the net effect of an insight is to lengthen your time horizon and improve your morale. Sometimes insights show a shorter path, but often they show a path where you couldn’t see one before, even it’s a long way around. Insights can be acted upon immediately but this new course of action may take some time to have an effect.

“Becoming emotional frequently leads to a narrowing-down of the psychologically existing area. A state of strong emotionality should, therefore, be detrimental to finding solutions. A distance sufficient to permit a survey of the larger situation helps in the solution of intellectual problems.”
Kurt Lewin in “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation” (1946)

When you are feeling stuck, forcing yourself to zoom out, to breathe deeply and relax, to drift a little, can help to lower the psychological and emotional stress you may be placing yourself under. For the most part entrepreneurs don’t have to manage physical stress (e.g. submerging yourself in an bathtub full of ice water) but do need to manage psychological stress, which is the bodies’ involuntary reaction to the way that a situation is perceived. If you can reframe your perception, you indirectly impact reactions that are not under conscious control.

“Being in an unknown surrounding is equivalent to being in a region which is  unstructured in the double sense that neither the quality nor the subparts of the present region, nor the immediately neighboring regions, are  determined.”
Kurt Lewin in “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation” (1946)

I think this can also be experience as the sensation of being lost, or in the dark, or trapped.

“Orientation is the structurization of the unstructured region.”
Kurt Lewin in “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation” (1946)

Although John Boyd does not reference Kurt Lewin in his description of the Orientation process of the OODA Loop, I think Lewin’s description neatly summarizes what happens between observation and decision.

“An unstructured region usually has the same effect as an impassable obstacle. Being in unstructured surroundings leads to uncertainty of behavior because it is not clear whether a certain action will lead to or away from the goal. It is undetermined whether the neighboring regions are dangerous or friendly.”
Kurt Lewin in “Behavior and development as a function of the total situation” (1946)

I think an unstructured region is equivalent to what Snowden is referring to when he talks about chaotic regions in his cynefin model. The only way to proceed is to explore and experiment, where exploration may take the form of careful observation, talking with other people who may have relevant experience, being explicit about the questions that you need to answer to frame the “known unknowns”, and to take the time reflect periodically on what you have learned.

In another essay in the book “Action Research and Minority Problems” he defines action research as “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of action.” This is also a good model for how to proceed when you don’t have a good mental model for your current situation.

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