Insights on Demand: 3 Paths to Trigger Your “A-ha!” Moments



“Business ideas are like those flying dragons in Avatar. First you have to find one, let it choose you, then be brave enough to ride it.” ― Ryan Lilly 

Call it an “a-ha” moment, Eureka! or an insight: everyone wants to be a little clairvoyant. Each of us has experienced one moment when suddenly out of nowhere we clearly had a solution in our minds.

Seeing future possibilities, making new discoveries, and experimenting with your ideas may open a whole new page in your life or the life of your organization. But how can you get more of these? Can you actually program these moments?

In his bestselling book, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein, a renowned cognitive psychologist, shares his thoughts on how individuals, as well as organizations, can increase their chances of gaining useful insights.

Based on extensive research, Klein came up with his Triple Path Model. The model can help you discover more insights by identifying triggers, subsequent activities and outcomes.

Here’s how it works.

There are three insight paths defined by Klein:

1. Contradiction Path –> Finding an Inconsistency
2. Connection Path –> Spot an Implication
3. Creative Desperation –> Escape an Impasse

Let’s look at each of them and see what can be applied to our real life situations.

1. Contradiction Path

Apart from reading Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, have you ever been in a situation when something felt not quite right? Be it a wrong pattern, strange financial report or missing data: you just can’t get it out of your mind. Klein provided a great example – Harry Markopolos, afinancial analyst who “sniffed” Bernie Madoff’s foul play well before the SEC. In fact, Markopolos’ suspicion started with that strange gut feeling – something’s wrong with that financial report!

Of course, spotting inconsistencies is not just about tracing the Madoffs and Enrons of this world. You can use this to help launch a new start-up or impactful program for your non-profit.

“If you’re part of a start-up,” writes Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, “I believe that your success might actually be defined by whether you are willing to be inconsistent…I think this also probably applies to a much wider context than startups: I think your success might be determined by how willing you are to be inconsistent.”

Klein’s suggestion is to “use the power of contradictions better.” Train yourself to trust your intuition and spot inconsistencies. Instead of dismissing confusion, contradictions and conflicts, give them some thoughts – “use them as springboards to insights…and employ the power of curiosity.” Your discovery may lead you to a breakthrough idea.

2. Connection, Coincidence or Curiosity

Whether it’s Isaac Newton’s infamous apple, Zuckerberg’s Facebook idea, or Charity: Water, the connection path is all about the missing links and swirling ideas. “The more swirl and turbulence, the greater the chance of discovery,” says Klein. It may lead to a billion-dollar start-up or the Nobel Prize. You choose.

Accidental discoveries are not magic at all. In fact, you have to “sit” on the problem for a while. Then a sudden trigger from a different industry or non-related field may lead to the “a-ha”. Back in 1988 when the work on sequencing and cloning green fluorescent protein (GFP) just started, Martin Chalfie, a Columbia University professor was working on DNA research. He was studying the nervous system of worms. On April 25, 1989, Chalfie decided to use his lunchtime productively – he attended a seminar on bioluminescent organisms organized by his department. Chalfie’s “a-ha” moment struck him when the speaker explained the ability of jellyfish to produce visible light. Then Chalfie suddenly realized that he could use GFP in his research. He could insert GFP into the transparent worms, shine ultraviolet light on it, and “look inside living organisms to watch their biological processes in action.” The rest is history – in 2008 Chalfie received the Nobel Prize.

Klein advises us to invest in increasing serendipitous experiences in our life so that we could spur the internal idea connection mechanism to a full extent. Think about it – whether you live in Beijing, Washington, DC or Prague, it’s in your power to try to meet with different kinds of people, engage in a variety of areas, learning all sort of new ideas. These experiences may become a “hive” to grow your big idea from. (And don’t forget to use your lunchtime hours creatively!)

Consider the story of Tillie O’Neal-Kyles, the founder of Every Woman Works. After her long career with AT&T, she managed her own business as an organizational and leadership consultant. However, there is more to life than business. O’Neal-Kyles wanted to help other people. Drawing from her own experience as a single mom, she wanted to help women “move from dependency to self-sufficiency.” She didn’t know how to begin.

And there was that call which changed everything. Yes, serendipity comes right on time. It was Lucy Hall, chief executive of Mary Hall Freedom House, one of the largest recovery centers for women and women with children in Atlanta. She was asking for help! Since that serendipitous moment, O’Neal-Kyles has helped over 1,400 women — from recovering substance abusers to those who have been homeless or sexually abused — learn life skills and get and keep jobs.

But remember, you can’t stand still – you have to nurture your idea, keep working on it. David Foster Wallace said it best: “Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

3. Creative Desperation

I like the name of the final trigger in Klein’s book – “creative desperation.” It seems that most writers and creative types are in a constant state of creative desperation. It’s that feeling when you’re trying to recall the name of that flower that you learned once when you were little while browsing Britannica. Now when you almost reached the top of Everest and see this exact flower, climbing the peak doesn’t make you happy anymore! Imagine this situation, but instead of the name of the flower, your idea is hatching.

Once we’re cornered, we usually begin to list our assumptions. Assumption one, assumption two, cross, cross, checkmark. Yet, the solution won’t come this way. A surprise or contradiction may help, writes Klein. In fact, he goes further by suggesting critical thinking, “a process of thinking that questions assumptions.” And when you’ve tried every avenue, you may decide to just pause right there.

Pause? While opinions about the value of incubation vary, research conducted by the Psychology Department at Texas A&M University showed that the idea incubation process increases our chances for insights.

In her example of 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas Circa 1939 drawn from the book by James Young, Maria Popova refers to incubation as an “unconscious processing” stage where you should be making absolutely “no effort of a direct nature.” Allow your idea to hatch in the unconscious.

T.S. Eliot used it. Edison took naps. Poincaré went to a geological excursion to receive a mathematical discovery. Why not go for a jog or walk in the forest? (Shoveling might work if you’re in Washington, DC these days!)

Discover and Share: The World Needs Your Ideas Today

“Our insights transform us in several ways,” writes Klein. “They change how we understand, act, see, feel, and desire… Having an insight is an act of creation. Each insight is the creation of a new idea that didn’t exist before, often in opposition to defective ideas that formerly prevailed…The magic of insights stems from the force for noticing connections, coincidences, and curiosities; the force for detecting contradictions; and the force of creativity unleashed by desperation. That magic lives inside us, stirring restlessly.”

Naturally, you can find many other ways that you could draw out your ideas. The point is – no matter what idea search process you may choose, you should act on it today, because:

Your idea today can help your nonprofit to make a difference in your community.
Your idea today can inspire someone who needs it right now.
Your idea today can transform you.

“Never be afraid to do something new. Remember, amateurs built the Ark; professionals built the Titanic.” — Anonymous


Fundraising In Tough Times: How To Beat Your Mike Tyson

Challenger Evander Holyfield (R) knocks down WBA heavyweight champion Mike Tyson during the 6th round of their title fight November 9, 1996 in Las Vegas. Holyfield won the championship with an 11th round TKO. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn PP05060142  GMH/CMC Reuters / Picture supplied by Action Images *** Local Caption *** RBBORH1996110900001.jpg

(REUTERS/Gary Hershorn) 

You’ve been hit. Oil prices keep falling. What is it, $27 or lower today? The Dow Jones doubles one day and then slides down triple digits the next. You realize your corporate funding will shrink, and your donors will cringe at their investments and cut their donations in half this year.

Sometimes fundraising is like boxing.

Left hook: competition among non-profits for limited corporate resources keeps growing. And they might have a stronger case than you do.

Jab-jab: you’re understaffed – have paperwork, calls and meetings with donors.
You’re pulled in different directions – every program fights for survival – they all need you to raise funds for them, and only them!

What do you do? Get up and fundraise. Fight!

You’ve got to beat your Mike Tyson! Evan Holyender, a four-time world heavy weight champion who fought Tyson in 1996, noted in his interview, that throughout his life, he heard again and again, “you can’t beat Tyson.”

Well, Holyender actually managed to do just that. “If you notice in that fight, I am the one who engaged, I made it happen because if you give any sign that you’re caving into him or take a step back, he gets stronger, so I realized I wasn’t going to do that.”

Holyender didn’t cave in to challenges. He learned all he could about his opponent; he assessed and measured Tyson’s best moves. Most importantly, he engaged, probed new punches, led the fight, and won.

And you can too.

Here are the Top 10 focus areas that can help you win:

1. Energize Your Most Important Stakeholders to Create a Nimble Fundraising Roadmap: Get your Board, staff, partners and volunteers together to develop a comprehensive fundraising strategy. My opinion is that it shouldn’t be a rigid, super conservative scenario, but rather a nimble roadmap for the next 3-5 years.

Granted, there will be changes along the way, but unless there is a strategic pathway, sporadic efforts won’t bring maximal success. Inspire honest dialogue among your most important stakeholders with the aim of carving out sensible, realistic and accountable goals for your fundraising efforts. Everyone should own their fundraising role, and be accountable for concrete follow up steps.

2. Proudly Hold Your Banner: Come up with a Compelling Case Statement for Your Non-Profit: Develop a compelling case statement, a document highlighting the top reasons why donors should support your organization. This has to be a document that magnetizes your supporters and donors. If you have one already, perhaps it’s a good time to take a fresh look and see whether you need to update it.

To create your best case statement, learn from Making the Case, an all-time fundraising classic by Jerold Panas.

3. Observe, Measure, Modify, Apply: If you don’t evaluate your past year’s fundraising performance, figuring out ROI and measuring the value of your efforts, you might as well try to play Powerball – same chances of winning!

Go back to your outreach results and figure out the cost, the amount raised, and time invested in each effort. Was it worth it? Should you change something? Did you learn from your mistakes? Who can help you this time?

4. Mine Deep to Find Your Gold: Are you doing enough to identify new prospects? How closely do you look at donor segmentation? Did you identify specific actions to reach out to each donor segment? How about starting with the ones who gave your non-profit $100 or more for the past two years? Even though these individuals graciously supported your organization, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have other causes. You need to remind them of the importance of your mission. What about your own network? Do you leverage your business network to find true gems?

5. Zoom in on Your Best Bets: Major Donors and Foundations
According to GivingUSA’s 2015 report, in 2014, individuals accounted for the largest source of charitable giving at 72% of total giving! Foundations followed next at 15%, while bequests (8%), and corporations (5%) ended the list.

Moreover, the report stated that 98.4% of high net worth households give to charity. Most high net worth donors cite “giving back to the community” as a chief motivation for giving.

What does this tell us? We must direct our efforts to focus on major donors and foundations. These are the areas that may provide the best ROI even in times of crisis! Instead, what are we doing? Are we still trying to get corporations on board?

The main concern, especially from smaller non-profits, is lack of staff and experience in approaching major donors. It’s time to engage your best supporters – volunteers and Board members. These people should be able to open doors for you.

6. Don’t Hide in Your Digital Box: Call, Meet, Listen, Repeat: Remember – you’ve got to engage your donors. Yes, it’s so easy to send 100 emails and put a check mark in your plan.

But the world hasn’t changed much. Before Artificial Intelligence takes over your fundraising duties, learn to use ancient tools of human communication – meet your donors face to face, and build personal relationships. No fancy app can replace the human touch. So far.

Building relationships doesn’t mean finding the right moment to ask for funding. Rather, it should be a genuine path to learning more about your donors, and organically evolve into specific areas of interest.

7. Love Your Donors: A Timely Thank-You Goes a Long Way: In good times, did you thank your donors enough? Probably not. Well, in hard times, you have to double your efforts. Send your donors handwritten notes. Randomly call your donor list on set dates. Go and meet them in their offices and homes. Share your experience, and ask for advice.

If you haven’t yet established the habit of writing thank-you notes, perhaps you can learn from Jimmy Fallon? The NY Post has a nice story on him and the newly rediscovered art of thank-you cards!

8. When In Doubt, Innovate: Don’t Let Crisis Dictate Your Course:While you want to follow a balanced fundraising approach, you can’t neglect innovative approaches and dismiss risk-takers. What if there’s a fantastic idea that can bring new supporters to your non-profit, boost your mission and entice donors to give more? Shouldn’t you try it when it’s rough out there?

We all can learn from successful U.S. Navy commander Michael Abrashoff, the captain in charge of USS Benhold, a guided missile destroyer, who in 3 years transformed the low performing ship into one of the highest performing ships in the U.S. Navy. Here’s what he wrote about innovation in his bestselling book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy:

Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything. To me, that’s the key to keeping an organization young, vital, growing, and successful. Stasis is death to any organization. Evolve or die: It’s the law of life. Rules that made sense when they were written may well be obsolete. Make them extinct, too.

9. Spearhead Your Direct Mail Outreach: Direct mail can deliver. According to Rebecca Gregory Segovia, EVP at Pursuant, for many non-profits “the direct mail channel often delivers between 60 and 80 percent of total revenue. The email channel provides between 5 and 15 percent. On average, direct mail response rates stand at 10 to 30 times that of email, and even higher when compared to online display.”

What does your direct mail data show you? Do you regularly track results? Do you personalize your appeals? Even though it’s only January – it’s time to think of your annual appeal letter. Start with evaluating your past letters – see what worked and what didn’t. Try not to repeat the same mistakes.

I really liked how fundraising experts from Bloomerang, a software company that provides donor management solutions to non-profits, identified questions you need to answer in your appeal, for both new and current donors:

New Donors:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you want?
  • Why should I trust you?
  • Why do you matter?
  • How do you relate to me?
  • What’s the rush?

Current Donors:

  • Who did you do with my prior gift?
  • Are you grateful?
  • What do you want now?
  • Do you have proof?
  • Again: Who are you?
  • What’s the rush?

Source: Bloomerang

And here’s a nice infographic for an annual appeal letter from Bloomerang: Of course, you can use these focused questions for all your donor appeals.

10. Online Fundraising: Surf and Fundraising

If you think that online fundraising isn’t a big deal, then you need a reality check. According to Network for Good’s research, which covers $233 million in online giving to 45,000 nonprofits, there was a 23% increase in online donations from 2013 to 2014.

Moreover, for a popular digital fundraising outreach, like GivingTuesday, the data show that mobile giving hiked up tremendously. Based on Blackbaud data, 17% of contributors who donated for GivingTuesday on December 1, 2015, did so on a mobile device, which is 13% higher than in 2014!

Most importantly, Network for Good report stated: “Online donors expect a connection—not simply a transaction—with the organization they support. The level of connection to an organization that a donor experiences online is directly tied to their likelihood of giving, giving more—and giving more often. Even small upgrades to the donor experience make a measurable difference in online giving.”

Here are two great resources for you to learn about various online fundraising tools:

Joseph Hogue, an investment analyst and crowdfunding expert, provided a fabulous ultimate list of crowdfunding and fundraising websites that you should explore today.

NonProfitTechForGood also came up with a list of 9 fundraising tools that your organization may consider using. Check SnapDonate or PromiseOrPay apps are a terrific way to energize your mobile and online fundraising. While some apps may have disappeared due to tight competition, others are still out there for your use.

Conclusion: Keep on Learning and Develop a Granite Chin

When you look back at this year in December, after you’ve put all these approaches and fundraising tools into practice, you’ll surely give a sigh of relief. Congratulations – you delivered even in bad times! Yet, if you stop there, you’ll lose your fight in 2017. So as the IBF super middleweight world champion Carl Froch advises, develop a granite chin.

“If you’ve got a granite chin, like I have, you’re immovable. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are, or how hard you train, if you aren’t tough enough, you won’t win. It’s the reason a lot of fighters who have success at the Olympics can’t replicate it when they go pro – they just aren’t tough enough.”

Now go out there and win! Good luck with your fundraising this year!

Simple Steps to Find Your Nonprofit “Zen”



No, I won’t waste your time offering yoga advice to relieve your non-profit challenges.

In fact, I’m not even talking about that Zen(禅 – meditation)!

Rather, I’ll share the secrets of what KaiZen can do for your non-profit.

But before I begin, let me ask you a question:

Do you think that the following would work at your non-profit?

  1. Discard conventional fixed ideas.
  2. Think of how to do it, not why it cannot be done.
  3. Do not make excuses. Start by questioning current practices.
  4. Do not seek perfection. Do it right away even if it will only achieve 50% the target.
  5. If you make a mistake, correct it right away.
  6. Throw wisdom at a problem, not money.
  7. Ask “WHY?” five times and seek root causes.
  8. Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.

What do you think? Can you subscribe at least to some of these points?

These are the guidelines of “kaizen”, (改善), the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement that greatly influenced Japanese business and became a cornerstone for the success of industry leaders, like Toyota, Sony, and many others.

According to Masaaki Imai, the founder of Kaizen strategy and Kaizen Institute, kaizen is based on ancient Japanese tradition and philosophy that achieves harmony through gradual and continuous improvement.

Remarkably, kaizen demonstrates that big results are achieved through many small changes. At the same time, kaizen offers all employees the authority to make improvements, not just upper management. It leads to better efficiency and effectiveness in an organization.

It also challenges the traditional Western approach – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – suggesting that there’s always room for improvement. Kaizen calls for appreciation of everyone’s input in the life of an organization, and suggests active participation from all staff members.

Another significant differentiator of kaizen is that it values holistic process-oriented management, productivity and quality control improvement involving the whole organization. Quite simply, kaizen aims at improving the organizational culture through a stimulating and supportive environment.

Does it bring innovation? You bet. But a different kind – the one that flows like a river, which never stops. Masaaki Imai said it better:

“Kaizen is like a hotbed that nurtures small and ongoing changes, while innovation is like magma that appears in abrupt eruptions from time to time.”

In summary, kaizen is more of a mindset than anything else. And you can start putting it into practice straight away.

For example, next week you can start your day by doing these three simple things:

1) Ask yourself one question today and every day – right now what can I do to make my non-profit better?

2) See the problem – fix it

3) Repeat the process

Yes, these steps seem incredibly simple. Yet making them a habit is much more difficult than you think, especially if your organization has a long history.
Nonetheless, you can begin small by making simple changes and inspiring others to follow suit. Of course, if you want maximum results, you will need to convince your peers to invest their time and energy in learning the best ways to implement kaizen principles at your non-profit.

Or as Masaaki Imai put it, “You can’t do kaizen just once or twice and expect immediate results. You have to be in it for the long haul.”

Are you?


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