Let me start this article by telling you a story. 25 years ago, when I was working on my thesis, I could not make any sense of some of the data that my experiments generated over the last three years. I was not able to connect the dots; I was not able to analyze the contradictions and the conflictual information that was in front of me. At one point, I simply concluded that maybe what I was seeing was the result of a simple coincidence. I was not even sure anymore if there was a scientific explanation behind it. I also vividly remember that the harder I worked at trying to make sense of the data, the more frustrated I became. It is as if thinking harder was counterintuitive. I went nowhere and I was stuck. Then I decided to let it rest and ignore it. As we often said, I slept on it and stopped thinking about it.
A few days later, I decided to go for a bike ride in the country. I hopped on my bike, and I cycled for almost one hundred kilometers, enough so that I can still remember today how I felt at the end of my ride. And as I was enjoying my ride in the country, I took the time to look at the nature around me thinking about nothing, completely ignoring the problem that I was trying to solve to complete my thesis. It is at that moment that something magical happened. At one point, I felt like I was experiencing an out-of-body experience, and just like at a flick of a switch, I was suddenly able to connect the dots and explain the contradictions. This was a huge “aha!” moment.
I got confirmation that day that if you cannot make sense of some of the data, facts, or observations that are in front of you, simply ignore them because, at one point, it will all make sense. But the caveat is that you do not know when it will start to make sense, and as such, you can quickly start to lose faith. And while deadlines are important for certain things, time is often your worst enemy. You need to believe in the power of the brain. During my career, I took great care in reminding myself to apply this approach. Even today, when my thinking is stuck and there is nothing more that I can think of, I go for a run and suddenly, “aha!” moment, accompanied by a solution to a problem that I need to resolve.
Now, let us fast forward 25 years to the world I live in, working with MSLs. I have had the opportunity over the last few years to work with hundreds of MSLs all over the world. All these MSLs have one thing in common. They are great at sharing data and science with physicians so that they can make the right decisions for their patients. They are also providing a very accurate picture of reality by being the eyes and the ears of what is happening in the hospitals, how decisions are made, and what keeps physicians awake at night. One of the tasks that the MSLs must do is collect facts, data, and observations that will lead to insights. Insights are important as they are often “aha!” moments that could potentially result in changes in the way physicians are practicing medicine.
When I look at the way we work today, what is interesting about the capture of insights is that MSLs and Managers of MSLs have the perception that if one of your annual objectives is to identify so many insights in a month or in a year, it will easily be done by simply listening to physicians and asking questions. This could explain why by imposing a certain quota, we are encouraging MSLs to find insights that are not insights but mere facts, data, or observations. Remember what I said before that time is often your worst enemy. It is certainly the case for insights gathering.
Going back to my own story, one can easily say that the harder you work to find insights, the less successful you will be. It is as if when you have a problem in front of you, the harder you work at trying to solve it, the less successful you will be. When it happens, it is much better to let it go and ignore it for the time being. If you want to find insights, you need to give your brain a chance to take a break; you need to go into what is known as the default state, which is the capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether¹. Sounds familiar? It is identical to the out-of-body experience that I went through when I rode my bike 25 years ago. How often have you heard people say that it is when they are in the shower, or when they are driving or doing exercise, that they find these “aha!” moments and insights.
This is the way we are as human beings. Insights are triggered in most cases when you do not think about them. It is as if they were there, but you need to put your brain in a subconscious mode to find them, the default state. If we remove the obligation to identify so many insights and replace this by an approach where we instead facilitate the identification of insights through the capture and analysis of facts, data, and observations, but also by explaining to people that a positive mood, mind-wandering, daydreaming or even spontaneous thoughts are important, it is fair to assume that any behavior that encourages people to attend their own quiet thoughts will be somewhat helpful to find meaningful insights².
And let us not forget sleep as it can help in this process as demonstrated by Thomas Edison who wrote down his thoughts by letting his mind wander as he was moving closer toward sleep. This was also confirmed by a study published in Nature in 2004³, who concluded that sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, could facilitate the extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behavior.
I feel obliged to say that based on my experience when we give MSLs a specific objective to find so many insights by the end of the month, we are simply not approaching it the right way. We certainly do not need to put MSLs under this useless extra pressure. It is as if we were hijacking the default state, preventing our brain from relaxing. No wonder most companies and most Managers of MSLs are saying that we are not good at identifying insights. The setup is not correct. We are part of the problem but also part of the solution. We need to understand that it is perfectly fine if an MSL does not find insights, despite the wealth of valuable information that they captured. It happens.
I am therefore recommending that we change our mindset in the way we approach the collection of insights done by MSLs. And to achieve this, I am proposing the following:
- Stop putting deadlines on how many insights MSLs need to find in a month, a quarter, or a year
- Take into consideration that facts, data, and observations will one day make sense, but we do not know when
- Give MSLs a chance to embark on a default state which will enable them to unlock solutions and breakthroughs leading to insights
- Let MSLs sleep on it as demonstrated by the study showing that sleep inspires insight
- Approach collecting insights with a positive mindset understanding that it is possible that we do not find any
We need to let go and let the brain do its magic. At one point, breakthrough thinking and insights will appear! And, when you find insight, it is accompanied by an emotionally pleasant “Aha!”. You just know, just like you know when you find the solution to a brain puzzle.
- Waytz A., Mason M., and Mason, “Your Brain at Work: What a New Approach to Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Management”, Harvard Business Review, Vol 91, Issue 4, 102-111, 2013
- Jung-Beeman M., Collier A., Kounios J., “How Insights Happens: Learning from The Brain”, NeuroLeadership Journal, Vol 1, Issue 1, 1-6, 2008
- Wagner U., Gais S., Halder H., Verleger R., Born J., “Sleep Inspires Insight”, Nature, Vol 427, 352-355, 22 January 2004
Alain Cérat, PhD
Dr. Alain Cérat is a bilingual, visionary Learning & Development Executive with consistent success in delivering exceptional organizational changes in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Cérat has led the development of new standards encouraging innovative ways of thinking, drawing on a unique background in Commercial, Medical, and Neuroscience.
Dr. Cérat capitalizes on more than 25 years of cross-functional expertise gained from work done with local, regional, and global stakeholders at Novartis and Merck. He excitedly takes on new challenges and drives continuous improvements to organizations. He is known for solutions that push the learner to think and see differently, try new things, and explore behaviors that lead to long-term change.
In his last role at Novartis, Dr. Cérat ensured the effectiveness and overall performance of the Medical Affairs 3000+ workforce through the high-quality delivery of innovative training programs. He set consistent global learning standards and established a hub capability-building expertise by adopting a growth mindset philosophy. Prior to that, Dr. Cérat worked in the Latin America-Canada Region where he was accountable for building and implementing high-quality standards for Field Medical. He worked closely with 9 countries representing a workforce of 250+, by leading the enhancement of local Field Medical capabilities as well as the development and facilitation of innovative training programs.
Dr. Cérat recently started his own consulting firm, SYNAPSE: Pharma. Training. Solutions. In this new chapter, he will combine his expertise in the field of neuroscience with his 25 years of working in pharmaceuticals, delivering personalized innovative solutions enabling people in Medical and Commercial to learn the fundamental truths about our brain and how we can leverage it to get better at what we do. Dr. Cérat will focus his work on improving general leadership skills, communication skills, presentation skills, coaching, creativity, and general training deliverables. Dr. Cérat can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Cérat has a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Montreal as well as an M.Sc. in Neurobiology. He also completed an Executive Masters Certificate from the NeuroLeadership Institute.