“Ideas are gifts from the universe. Every time I have them, I capture them right then. The more that you write it down and pay attention to them, the stronger the gift and the connection will become. And you will start being flooded with more and more ideas.”
Sara Blakely, Self-Made Billionaire and CEO of Spanx

The common core of both strategy and innovation is insight. An insight results from the combination of two or more pieces of information or data in a unique way that leads to a new approach, new solution, or new value. Mark Beeman, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, describes insight in the following way: “Insight is a reorganization of known facts taking pieces of seemingly unrelated or weakly related information and seeing new connections between them to arrive at a solution.” Simply put, an insight is learning that leads to new value.

A study of more than 5,000 executives by McKinsey & Co. found that the most important innovation trait for managers in high-performing organizations is the ability to come up with insights. Unfortunately, the research also showed that only 35 percent of global executives believed their strategies are built on unique insights. And only 25 percent of managers believe their companies are good at both strategy and innovation.

Innovation is the continual hunt for new value; strategy is ensuring we configure resources in the best way possible to develop and deliver that value. Strategic innovation can be defined as the insight-based allocation of resources in a competitively distinct way to create new value for select customers. Too often, strategy and innovation are approached separately, even though they share a common foundation in the form of insight. As authors Campbell and Alexander write, “The fundamental building block of good strategy is insight into how to create more value than competitors can.”

When insights—learnings that create new value—do appear, it’s important to record them. You never know when the idea will germinate. At the beginning of his filmmaking career, George Lucas was working on the draft of a science fiction movie while he was mixing sound for his 1973 film American Graffiti. During one of the sound mixing sessions, the Academy Award winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch asked Lucas for Reel 2, Dialogue 2, which he said in its abbreviated form, “R2-D2.” Lucas took note of the pleasing sounding phrase, and it later became the name of the resourceful astromech droid in the Star Wars franchise.

One of the common threads woven between great contributors throughout history is the discipline to record their insights, typically in notebooks. Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Ludwig van Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Beatrix Potter, Rosalind Franklin, Thomas Edison, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain are just a few of the highly significant contributors who fastidiously recorded their insights. Leonardo da Vinci, the prolific Renaissance inventor, sculptor, painter, engineer, scientist, and architect, accumulated more than 20,000 pages of notes containing his thinking and insights. If anyone ever questions the value of recording ideas, they can reference the $30.8 million that Microsoft founder Bill Gates spent to purchase one of da Vinci’s notebooks—the Codex Leicester.

The act of physically recording an insight triggers us to observe what’s happening around us and reflect on those observations in order to transform them into something meaningful. In Matt Fitzpatrick’s case, he transformed his 13 years of copious notes into the 2022 U.S. Open Men’s Golf Championship. Following every shot he performs in both practice and competition, he records detailed information that can be analyzed to enhance performance that day and referenced in future situations. While he records standard information such as the club he hit, wind conditions, and where the ball landed, he also records things that even a high-processing computer couldn’t track such as where he intended to hit the shot versus the actual result. Reflecting on his disciplined process, Fitzpatrick says, “I just think: find the 1% somewhere where I can improve…having all that data, it just makes it more reliable.”

While we may not be earning a living reading a putt on the 18th green to win a check for $1 million, it’s intriguing to think about applying someone’s process who does. What if after every significant interaction during the day—one-to-one meetings, team meetings, presentations, etc.—you took five minutes to think, reflect, and record your insights on the interaction. Would that make you a higher performer?

I use the STRATEGIC Journal I developed as a complement to my new book by the same name to record my insights and categorize them. The categorization of insights makes reviewing them in the future much more efficient and it’s easier to connect the dots. The journal also provides three strategic thinking frameworks at the beginning of each quarter to stimulate and channel my insights into a strategic action plan. At the end of each quarter, I do an evaluation of how I spent my time for one week and then compare the totals with my priorities to ensure I’m investing time where it’s going to have the greatest impact.

Abraham Lincoln’s comment, “It is indispensable to have a habit of observation and reflection,” reveals a powerful truth: taking time to stop and think will differentiate you from the majority of people living in a perpetual state of reactivity. If we operate like the bumper car at the carnival, bouncing from one thing to the next with no rhyme or reason, then insights will evade us. Don’t be the carny, be strategic.

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