Janine sat at her desk with yet another set of dismal monthly performance figures. Over three quarters, she had met with various managers and staff to pinpoint the problems.  She consulted industry best practices.  Issues we identified and resolved. Each month, she hoped for strong end-of-the-month numbers. And each month, her hope was dashed.

She had some ideas about the challenges: Her company was entering a new stage of growth and competition was steadily increasing. New hiring challenges were emerging as their staffing needs increased. Despite the tremendous effort she and others across the company had invested in meeting these and other challenges, something was still off. Janine knew she needed a new approach to devise an effective solution.

Action learning: an approach to new and complex problems
For the most part, we have created and fine-tuned how to solve the routine problems we regularly face. For such situations, we rely on analytic processing and left-brain thinking. These codified or routine problems are stored in our basal ganglia associated with things like motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors, eye movements, thought, and emotion.

But all bets are off when we face new, complex, and urgent problems. In such cases, our tried-and-true approaches and even industry best practices fail to deliver.

David Rock explains in his book, Your Brain at Work, that because we have not faced problems quite like these before, we have no pre-determined solutions ready and waiting in our working memory. When we try to mentally search and retrieve answers, we come up short, saying things like, “I don’t know,” “I’m having a mental block,” or “I’m at an impasse.”

In these new situations, we need action learning, a problem-solving methodology that uses the power of questions to trigger reflection, insight, and breakthrough thinking. According to action learning, you cannot have insight without reflection, nor can you have reflection with a question:

Question → Reflection → Insight

This is the secret of getting from impasse to insight, and it is rooted in brain science. This article focuses on reflections and insights.

Reflection: a time to think about thinking
Reflection, sometimes called metacognition, is a time to think about your thinking. Insights may emerge only once you pause to reflect on the fact that your strategies are not working.

You can accelerate reflection by partnering with people who have “clarity of distance” from your problem and who can bring fresh perspective to it.

You could convene small groups of five to six people to work together on a specific problem. At least one person needs to bring a fresh perspective due to lack of familiarity with the problem. This technique is called reflective inquiry, a participatory action-learning intervention of asking questions to stimulate dialogue and reflection, leading us to challenge our prevailing assumptions and mental frames and gain more insightful perspectives of the problem.

Insight: the restful, processing brain
Sudden insights “come out of the blue,” hitting us “like a bolt of lightning” or “a ton of bricks.” But exactly how insight happens is a bit trickier.

Research by Dr. Mark Beeman suggests that insight occurs when our brains exhibit certain patterns. Insight begins with being in a resting brain state, marked by increased alpha waves to turn down visual input and help us step away from the problem we are trying to solve.

Once at rest, right brain unconscious and subconscious processing begins: We shuffle and reshuffle semantic information, shifting away from strong or incorrect associations and shifting toward holistic thinking and new connections. Then, at the moment of solution, our brains experience a high burst of gamma activity.

What’s important about all of this research is that we can create conditions that help produce insight and this can increase our personal and organizational creativity.

Here are some helpful techniques to try:

  1. Spend a moment taking note of the problem you are facing and the techniques you’ve tried that haven’t been working.
  2. Partner with others who are less familiar with your problem. Tell them about your strategies and underlying assumptions.
  3. Now, step away from the problem you are trying to solve to make room for the insights to come through. Engage in an unrelated activity, especially one you enjoy.


At Sage Ways, we use these and many other techniques to engage our clients in action learning. According to this philosophy, we begin with questions and facilitate reflection to yield powerful creativity and breakthrough thinking.