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Friday, January 25, 2013


Aha moments can spark huge actions... so what if you could have them on demand?

Don Kemper, founder of Healthwise, recalled a critical aha moment 40 years ago. He heard a speech by an Assistant Secretary for Health Education and Welfare, where the official said that the greatest untapped resource in health care was the patient. In that instant, Kemper saw that individuals could (and should) take control of their own health choices, rather than relinquishing those decisions to professionals. That idea became the cornerstone of his organization's mission—helping people make better health decisions.

An aha moment is a sudden and often complete understanding of something or solution to a problem. Teenagers who realize the world doesn't revolve just around them, middle aged business people who decide that more money may not mean more happiness, or the leader who finds a way to build a sustainable culture all can experience sudden insight.

But are all aha moments equal? Do they all happen suddenly and with complete clarity?

Not at all.

We know that aha moments generally follow a three stage process. Some people go through the phases faster than others or they may return to a stage, but the process seems to hold across people and organizations. The three stages include sorting information, sparking the insight, and then confirming or checking to see if it holds up over time.

Sort: The first phase involves collecting and sifting through loads of information to learn about a topic or solve a problem. The information could be dumped on a person, like a new language learner trying to absorb vocabulary. Or, the information could be self-sought, like an engineer learning a new job. During this phase, people feel overwhelmed by the speed and quantity of information, so they have to sort and organize the information to begin to make sense of it. Sometimes an aha moment pops, but often not.

Spark: After sorting comes a "spark" phase. It demands more "right brain" thinking, so many people bypass it or rush through this stage, and consequently miss new insights. Encouraging aha moments in this stage comes when you look at problem from a very different angle, reach for ideas from outside your field, or find what might be "missing."

Check: Once an aha moment happens, you need to check to see if it holds beyond that one experience. People test insights in different ways, including trying it out on experts and non-experts. As one of Einstein's colleagues once said, "make [your idea] simple enough that a barmaid can understand it." If both experts and "barmaids" understand the idea, it gains more credibility.

When aha moments don't happen

Several high performing, creative leaders have commented that they no longer have dramatic epiphanies like they used to. Why? It turns out they incorporate "spark" type techniques into their general thinking. Rather than stopping to ask, "how can I think about this in another way," they do it automatically. It's become habit to simply think in ways that encourage aha moments.

So we can encourage aha moments, like other types of creative thinking, to become a habit. Aha!

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation and Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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