Gary Klein: An interview by Bob Morris

Klein, GaryGary Klein, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at MacroCognition, LLC. He was instrumental in founding the field of Naturalistic Decision Making. 
He developed a Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model to describe how people actually make decisions in natural settings. He also developed methods of Cognitive Task Analysis for uncovering the tacit knowledge that goes into decision making. More recently, he has been investigating sensemaking, replanning, and anticipatory thinking. He has developed a PreMortem technique for helping organizations with risk management. And he has devised methods for On-the-Job Training to help organizations recycle their expertise and their tacit knowledge to newer workers.

He received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1969. He has written Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (1998, MIT Press); The Power of Intuition (2004, Currency Book/Doubleday); Working Minds: A practitioner’s guide to Cognitive Task Analysis (with Beth Crandall and Robert R. Hoffman, 2006, MIT Press); Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the keys to adaptive decision making (MIT Press, 2009); and Seeing What Others Don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights (PublicAffairs, 2013). 
He was selected as a Fellow of Division 19 of the American Psychological Association in 2006.

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Morris: Before discussing Seeing What Others Don’t, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Klein: Three D’s: Hubert Dreyfus, Adriaan deGroot, and Karl Duncker. Dreyfus because he explained why information processing accounts of thinking were inherently limited, setting me off on my qualitative investigations of decision making. Degroot’s work with chess grandmasters illustrated how to study experts respectfully. Duncker for providing a compelling Gestalt framework for understanding problem solving.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

It was reading Bert Dreyfus’s book, What Computers Can’t Do. Dreyfus identified some limitations of Artificial Intelligence, but as I went through the book I felt that his comments were also relevant to the information processing approach that was dominating cognitive psychology. And that opened up a possibility of trying to formulate an alternative approach to cognitive psychology that wasn’t tied to information processing views. I read Dreyfus’s book around 1976, and we held the first Naturalistic Decision Making conference in 1989. The success of the Naturalistic Decision Making movement – in May, 2013 we had our 11th international meeting in Marseille, France – suggests that I made a good career choice.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Klein: I have worked in three settings. I started out in academia, as an Assistant Professor and later an Associate Professor of Psychology. Next I moved to government, working as a research psychologist for the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. After four years I went out on my own, starting my own company, Klein Associates. That company grew to 37 people at the time I sold it to Applied Research Associates in 2005.

There is so much I know, or think I know, that I didn’t when I started out. I had never worked in a company before I started my own. With hindsight, I should have learned more about the dynamics of research company, perhaps finding a position at one before starting my own. There was just a lot to absorb, a lot of getting up to speed about running a company at the same time I was trying to find sponsors and leading the research projects. I was very lucky to make it through the first seven years.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Klein: I think the gist of this quote is to be alert to what you can learn from others, particularly people you are trying to help, rather than being so arrogant that you try to impose your own ideas. We need an appreciative inquiry in order to make discoveries.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Klein: My reaction here is that people sometimes are so confident in their flawed beliefs that they get stuck – fixated – and as a result are blinded to insights that are right in front of them.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Klein: This quote is consistent with the notion that some insights require us to drastically alter our thinking. The question is how to diagnose what is wrong with the old way of thinking, and how to discard deeply held beliefs. Einstein’s special theory of relativity is one of the examples I use in my book.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Klein: That sounds reasonable, but it assumes a level of forecasting that is beyond many people, including me. We cannot easily articulate our deeply held assumptions, let alone engineer ways to test them. With hindsight we can sometimes appreciate how we tested and modified or abandoned deeply held assumptions. But not at the time.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Klein: Because they got to be C-level executives by excelling at their previous job so they know just how the work needs to be done, but they’re not yet proficient at their new job. The result is approach/avoidance. Making sure their previous tasks are done right and avoiding challenges that require them to anticipate consequences that they don’t yet understand.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Klein: A few reactions. First, the skill of storytelling helps to galvanize your team. Second, the discipline of storytelling requires leaders to be clear about their intentions and to prioritize what fits into the story versus secondary goals and issues. Third, there is possibly an artifact here – great storytellers can make their exploits and achievements sound very exciting and memorable. Successful leaders who are not good storytellers won’t get the acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Klein: Many change initiatives are poorly thought out, and rolled out prematurely. Others are genuinely good ideas but the proponents underestimate the amount of time needed to make the change. And, I agree, true change usually requires people giving something up and so resistance is pretty well guaranteed for any meaningful change.

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Klein: If you are committed to the change, you’re going to have to sideline the skeptics, or at least keep them under control. There may be a temptation to move them out but skeptics have a value – flagging weaknesses in the plan. Ideally, you will enlist their critical stance by challenging them to find ways to improve the plan as you go forward.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Klein: Short apprenticeships with actual companies – hopefully a variety of companies – to provide richer mental models of how organizations work and get things done. Plus tools for probing the expertise of the people within the organizations so that their skills and tacit knowledge get appreciated.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Seeing What Others Don’t. When and why did you decide to write it?

Klein: The timing was a bit unorthodox. I never set out to write a book. Instead, I initiated a research project to understand more about the nature of insight. I had no grand plans. But then, after working on the project for almost a year, I felt that I had made more progress than I had expected. I knew things about insight that seemed new and important. Plus, my research project depended on analyzing 120 incidents accounts. 120 stories. So I had a large set of stories to tell plus an overarching story – how people gain insights. That’s when I decided to turn my project into a book.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Klein: I can’t say too much without giving away the mystery theme from Part I of the book, but that theme was head-snapping to me. After wrestling with the 120 stories I suddenly found that they all fell into place, pretty neatly. I felt that I finally understood how insights arrive. That was a very satisfying moment.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Klein: Originally, I was going to write the book as a field guide to different types of insights. But my agent urged me to find a narrative arc, and that’s when I shifted Part I into a mystery story about how do people actually gain insights. And as the book went along I beefed up Part III to reflect ideas I had gotten about how to support people who want to gain more insights.

Morris: Please explain the two “arrow” metaphors. What goes up and what goes down?

Klein: Yes, this is a very important part of the book. This is what started my research project. How can we improve performance? My claim is that we have to do two things. The down arrow refers to what we need to reduce: errors. That’s what most management approaches are about, ways to cut down on mistakes. However, eliminating mistakes isn’t enough. The up arrow is what we need to increase: insights. We need to do both, reduce errors (the down arrow) and increase insights (the up arrow). There’s a lot of guidance about reducing errors. However, there is very little about the up arrow, about insights. That’s the issue that got me started.

Morris: What is Michael Gottlieb’s unique relevance to gaining insights to increased understanding?

Klein: His insight about the AIDS epidemic came about in a different way than the research literature describes. It was through spotting a coincidence.

Morris: How specifically can insights be [begin italics] transf0rmative [end italics]?

Klein: Insights change the way we understand things, and also change our notions of how to get things done. They change how we feel and change our goals. By my definition, insights are inherently transformative. I would have made “transformation” part of the title or sub-title except that the term gets used so frequently.

Morris: What is the “flash of illumination”? To what extent can it be planned and then managed?

Klein: The flash of illumination is the instant when we re-wire our thinking and see things in a new way. It comes with little or no warning. So it cannot be planned or managed. That’s what makes insights so exciting.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between intuition and insight?

Klein: Intuition is when we use our experience, and the patterns we have learned, to rapidly size up situations and know how to respond without going through deliberate analysis. Intuitions depend on the patterns we have acquired. Insight is about gaining new patterns.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, you identify and then discuss five quite different strategies or pathways for gaining insights. Please explain, briefly, the thrust of each. First, [begin italics] connections [end italics]

Klein: Sometimes we notice the link between different ideas or events, and that connection results in an insight – the formation of new beliefs we didn’t previously have.

Morris: [begin italics] Coincidences [end italics]

Klein: Sometimes we notice a recurrent theme, get curious about it, and discover an underlying cause – we gain an insight by following up on an association.

Morris: [begin italics] Curiosities [end italics]

Klein: Sometimes we are surprised by an odd event. We get curious about it, follow it up, and make a discovery that way.

Morris: [begin italics] Contradictions [end italics]

Klein: Sometimes we are struck by a mismatch – events that don’t make sense, events that aren’t consistent with our beliefs. Our natural tendency is to explain away the discrepancy and most of the time that’s what we should do because the discrepancy is an artifact of some sort. But other times we take the discrepancy seriously and wonder if the unlikely event might be valid. And that’s when we gain an insight. The discrepancy is real and we have to give up some of our existing beliefs.

Morris: And finally, [begin italics] creative desperation [end italics]

Klein: Sometimes we get stuck. We believe there’s a way forward but we can’t find it. That’s when we need to jettison one of our assumptions that is getting in our way.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages. First, “Looking at the Data” (91-93)

Klein: In my investigation of insights, I tried various ways to sort through all the data – the different ways I had coded the 120 incidents I had studied. These analyses were helpful, but I felt that there was more. So I put the analyses aside and delved into the stories themselves, to try to see what they might reveal.

Morris: “The Logic of Discovery” (101-108)

Klein: This refers to my own discovery about how insights actually happen. When I was able to sort out the different threads I could create a diagram that illustrates what I learned about insights.

Morris: “Stupidity in Action” (114-118)

Klein: The flip side of insights is stupidity, so I took a side trip in my investigation to study examples of stupidity – many of them my own stupidity.

Morris: “Flawed Beliefs” (121-125)

Klein: Perhaps the major barrier to arriving at an insight is holding on to flawed beliefs that are inconsistent with the insight.

Morris: “Rescuing Jemima [Boone, daughter of Daniel Boone]” (140-148)

Klein: People who design decision aids and information technologies usually try to help people perform their jobs better. But insights can show us how to perform our jobs differently. And so the decision aids and technologies can get in the way of insights! I illustrate this using the example of Daniel Boone setting out to rescue his daughter Jemima who had been captured by Indians.

Morris: “The Motivations [to Stifle Insights]” (151-157)

Klein: One of my discouraging observations is that organizations try to stifle insights despite claiming to want to promote them. Insights are disruptive and disorganizing. They run counter to organizations’ desires to reduce uncertainty, reduce errors, and increase predictability. Insights increase uncertainty and are unpredictable.

Morris: “Down-Arrow Methods to Reduce Errors and Uncertainty” (160-167)

Klein: It is instructive to see how organizations pursue their goal of reducing errors and uncertainty. They impose standards, employ checklists, demand that knowledge workers list assumptions for their conclusions and document all sources. These actions either directly interfere with forming insights or create an environment where insights and discoveries are treated with suspicion because they might lead to errors. They signal to knowledge workers that their job is not to make mistakes. Even if they don’t make discoveries, no one can blame them as long as they don’t make mistakes.

Morris: “How [begin italics] not [end italics] to Hunt for Insights” (171-178)

Klein: I wasn’t sure whether to include this chapter because it seems controversial. The chapter is critical of conventional insight research that poses artificial puzzles for college subjects to solve within a limited amount of time. This approach seems like a poor way to study insights, a poor way to hunt for discoveries about insights because in natural settings people pursue insights in areas that interest them, not areas that researchers impose. In the end, I chose to include the chapter because I think it is important to identify some of the limitations of the laboratory methods for capturing insights.

Morris: “Diagnosis [when helping others],” and, “Diagnosis Plus Action” (193-199)

Klein: The ability to help others gain insights seems very important to me, and I think one of the most effective, but most difficult, ways is to listen sympathetically when people seem to be saying stupid things or thinking in confused ways. Rather than write them off, we can try to diagnose what is wrong with their thinking – what flawed belief they might be holding. And then search for ways that enables them to discover the flawed belief for themselves.

Morris: Here’s a question based on my observations while raising three sons and a daughter and then observing their ten children (ages 6-22). It’s a two-part question, actually: To what extent do people (of all ages) not see because they do not know [begin italics] what to look for [end italics]? Please explain.

Klein: That seems reasonable. When you see things that your children and grandchildren miss, often the reason is that you have been there before and know how to direct your attention. It’s like a chess master versus a beginner. The chess master can anticipate what is likely to happen and what to watch out for. The beginner, who may not have played many endgame situations, is just trying to make legal moves and not leave any pieces dangling. The beginner has no way to anticipate. Having said that, we cannot help the beginner by exhortations to “think ahead.” They cannot know what to think about.

Morris: Here’s a related question: To what extent do people (of all ages) not see because they do not know [begin italics] how to be observant [end italics]? Please explain.

Klein: Ellen Lange distinguished between mindless behavior and mindfulness. I think that may be what you are referring to. Just going through the motions versus being actively engaged.

Morris: Years ago during an interview of a C-level executive at the Toyota Motor Company, he said that company had generous rewards available for whose whom he characterized as “problem finders.” In you opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a world-class problem finder?

Klein: They are mindful, and therefore they pick up on early signs of discrepancies and anomalies. Instead of explaining away the discrepancies, they take a little time to ponder the implications. They may have a high need for cognition – their attention is directed toward issues and events that have the potential to open up new topics to think about. And they are high in self-efficacy – ready to take action to make necessary changes.

Morris: Of all the insights you have gained over the years concerning the decision-making process, which do you consider to be most valuable? Why?

Klein: The most valuable insight I have made about how people make decisions is that when they become skilled they don’t have to make decisions – choices between options. Instead, they can draw on experience and the patterns they have acquired to recognize what to do, ignoring other options. This is the basis of the Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model my colleagues and I described thirty years ago.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Seeing What Others Don’t and is now determined to improve decision-making capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Klein: I think the CEO would start with the performance diagram showing the up and down arrows and the motivation and commitment to achieve a better balance between reducing errors and increasing insights. Without that commitment, without turning it into a long-term effort and without getting the company on board, I don’t think much will happen of lasting value.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Klein: “What kept you working on this project for 3-4 years?” Here’s my answer: Because the creation of new ideas seems so magical. Researchers have spent so much energy showing all the ways we might be biased – encouraging us to be careful with our assumptions and speculations. But here is the opposite side of the coin: all the ways we make discoveries. Our capacity for insight seems worth investigating and understanding. And it seems worth celebrating.

* * *

Gary cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Amazon: Seeing What Others Don’t link

Amazon: Sources of Power link

Insight Exchange link

MacroCognition link

Also, please check out my blog on the Psychology Today website

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  1. […] following interview is from “Blogging on Business” by Bob […]

  2. Cognitive Blade Runner on October 15, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Great interview. The structure of this interview was very thoughtful, and brought out many rich dimensions. Thank you Mr. Morris, and Dr. Klein, for such a thorough discussion.

  3. […] Interviewed by Bob Morris […]

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