Most of us spend our lives pursuing knowledge when what we really need is insight. Throughout our education and our careers we strive to learn things that we hope will bring us success. While knowledge is certainly important, a great insight will beat it every time.

For example:

People had been experimenting with electricity for well over a century and researchers all over the world understood how it worked; one of them invented the light bulb and the infrastructure that made it viable.

Many companies knew how to make automobiles—and were doing it very profitably; a guy named Ford started doing it on an assembly line.

Many companies were selling cosmetics when one woman decided to do it in a way that provided non-traditional jobs to other women, selling to women. She created Mary Kay.

Sears and K-Mart were once two of the most successful retailers in the world. They knew their business, until a company in ruralArkansasbegan selling in places those companies considered too small to bother with and Wal-Mart overtook them.

IBMunderstood the computer business like no one else in the world—or so it thought. So it gave what it considered to be the least profitable part of a new venture to a fledgling company called Microsoft.

Thousands of entrepreneurs saw dollar signs on the Internet; one realized that the way to leverage that new medium was with, of all things, books. He called it

Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Mary Kay Ash, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos. They’re just a tiny fraction of all the examples one could give of people whose insight trumped everyone else’s knowledge. Any business school graduate could quickly list many more.

It’s no different inside organizations. Does anyone who has worked in a large company more than a few months believe that promotions go to those who “know” the most? (And even when they do, is that always good?)

One of business’ greatest truisms is that you must know your customer. Yet you can know your customer quite well and still get thumped in the marketplace—by someone who has figured out something that even your customers don’t yet know about themselves. (See above list.)

Knowledge is not only less powerful than insight; there are times when what we think we know can become one of our greatest obstacles. (IBM, Sears…)

If some genie ever offers you a choice between profound knowledge and profound insight, choose insight.

Excerpt from Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader

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