In a previous post I suggested that “insight” often comes from finding or seeing connections that are not obvious.  Analytical techniques can reveal unseen patterns of association in numerical data.  A different type of insight occurs when our brains make connections that are not obvious–something we often think of as the “eureka” experience.

An article in the June(2009) issue of Harvard Business Review reminded me of another metaphor for the difference in the two types of insight.  Darrell K. Rigby, Kara Gruver, and James Allen point to the fashion industry as a model for innovating in turbulent times.  The key to innovation in the fashion industry, according to these authors, is the pairing of a talented “left-brain” business executive with an equally talented “right brain” creative person.  Fashion industry examples include Calvin Klein with Barry Schwartz and Marc Jacobs with Robert Duffy (in case you’re wondering, the creative “right brain” is the one whose name is on the label).

Our understanding of hemispheric specialization–different functions performed by the two halves of the brain–began with the work of Roger W. Sperry in the 1960s.  Like much of what we knew about brain functioning prior to the invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Sperry made his discoveries by studying people whose brains had been altered in some way–usually by injury, but in Sperry’s case by surgery to relieve epileptic seizures.  The patients Sperry studied had undergone severing of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.  The experiments that Sperry conducted yielded some startling findings about the differences in the functioning of the two hemispheres, giving rise to the  concepts of “left brain thinking” and “right brain thinking.”

As Daniel Pink describes this distinction in his book, A Whole New Mind:  Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2005), there are four key areas of difference between the left and right hemispheres.  First, the left hemisphere controls the sensory and motor functions on the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls those functions on the left side.  The fact that the retina of the eye is similarly split, with the left side feeding visual signals to the right visual cortex and the right half sending its signals to the left visual cortex enabled many of the experiments that led to understanding of hemispherical differences.

Second, Pink points out that the left hemisphere is particularly good at processing information sequentially, while the right is good at simultaneous processing.  Third, the left hemisphere specializes in text, the right specializes in context. Finally, the left hemisphere focuses on the details, while the right looks at the big picture.

For the most part, market research and other business activities such as data mining that are aimed at creating customer knowledge rely on left-brain functions.  In my experience, the most common type of report for quantitative market research is a series of tables or charts summarizing the responses to survey questions, often presented in the same sequence as they occurred in the survey.  These survey responses will be displayed for the total sample as well as for whatever subgroups were deemed important a priori. If we take “text” to include numbers, this hits the three cognitive characteristics of left-brain thinking:  sequential information focused on details represented by text.

Analysis–a left brain activity–can reveal patterns in data, such as the degree to which one variable (such as age) is correlated with another variable (such as whether or not a consumer uses on-line banking).  Because in most cases randomness comes into play, it is difficult to detect a true pattern without some sort of statistical analysis, particularly when the degree of association is weak.  Visual display of the association between variables, such as a scatterplot, will make strong relationships immediately obvious (at least when we are considering only two or three variables).  Weak relationships are not so obvious.  By the way, our right brain is more actively involved in processing the scatterplot; our left brain is more actively involved in processing correlation coefficients and regression weights that summarize the degree of association numerically.

“Insight” requires the active engagement of of both left and right brain processes.  We achieve insight by making connections among disparate pieces of information.  I think market research consultants often fall short in this regard because they do not have all the relevant pieces of information.  They cannot form a complete picture of the connections.  It follows that the more experience a consultant has in the particular domain of interest, the more connections that person will be able to make, and the more likely that “insight” will emerge from the process.

Because much market research is left brain dominant, our right brain functions might be rusty from lack of use.  Daniel Pink offers some practical advice for strengthening right brain thinking in A Whole New Mind.  In a follow-up post on customer narratives, I’ll touch on one of Pink’s “six senses.”

Copyright 2009 by David G. Bakken