Why innovators should trust their intuition

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Why innovators should trust their intuition

Written by Shelly Greenway

January 2007 saw the invention of the iPhone, an innovation that quickly reversed the fortunes of an ailing Apple and changed the smartphone market forever. Innovation is something that all businesses strive for, but it can be difficult characteristic to foster. Search for innovation on Google and you’ll see endless results extolling the virtues of using instinct and intuition to make better business decisions and become more innovative.

Where does intuition come from?

Contrary to some belief, intuition isn’t a magical power, a sixth sense or a lucky guess. It is knowledge that has been derived from the unconscious processing of multiple pieces of information; beliefs, experiences, memories and feelings. As author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book “Blink”: “What we feel as intuition is really the result of unconscious rapid cognition, fast and frugal information processing that goes on subliminally.”

Sometimes this happens as a gut feeling, the sensation of having an inkling or a hunch. The mind-gut connection is a physical phenomenon, with hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain and enteric nervous system. If you feel intuitively that something is wrong, your gut will tell you.

The development of intuition lies in human evolution. As hunter-gatherers, intuition enabled us to sense the right moment to close-in on prey and make snap fight-or-flight decisions.

Intuition’s role in decision-making

Many marketers suffer from information overload. There are too many reports, metrics, market intelligence, reams of research and survey data for marketers to sift through. In this case, intuition can be a solution. One illustration of this is the “Milwaukee vs. Detroit” experiment. A group of German and American students was asked which of these cities was larger. The Germans got the correct answer because they guessed, based solely on which city they felt they had heard more about. Whilst the German students trusted their gut feelings, the Americans found themselves distracted by all the knowledge and information they had on each city and eventually got the answer wrong. Gladwell terms this phenomenon “thin-slicing” – homing in intuitively on a few chunks of data we know to be telling.

Richard Branson, a renowned innovator, is well versed in thin-slicing: “I make up my mind about whether a business proposal excites me within about 30 seconds of looking at it. I rely far more on gut instinct than researching a huge amount of statistics.” In doing so, Branson trusts his subconscious to have processed the collection of all relevant past experiences to instantly offer him the right answer.

Why your intuition isn’t fool-proof

Emotional attachments, inbuilt biases and over-analysing can all get in the way of successful intuiting. Even Richard Branson’s impeccable intuition has occasionally let him down. When he backed Body Shop rival Virgin Vie Cosmetics, for example. Branson later discovered that consumers didn’t share his enthusiasm for cosmetics from an aviation firm.

Humans are naturally cautious, and our instinct is to protect ourselves and remain safe. This leads to behaviours that are in direct contrast to radical innovation. Furthermore, personal experiences, especially negative ones, create inbuilt unconscious biases. For example, we may have an emotional investment in a new NPD idea that we just can’t see past. Solely relying on intuition, therefore, could lead to detrimental decision making. Using intuition wisely is about becoming aware of unconscious biases or acknowledging insufficient experience.

How to use intuition for innovation

Experience and expertise are prerequisites for effective thin-slicing. It’s good practice to seek advice from category and industry experts, who can distil key insights for you without bias because they’re not as invested (emotionally or financially) in your project. Their thin-slicing can tell you more than a mountain of data.

Don’t dismiss qualitative research and speaking with your target market. Qualitative information that offers a good feel for your consumer target may be more helpful than quantitative data that may lead to overthinking.

Working as a team intuitively offers more chances for finding a winning idea. Disagreements within your team or with your boss can help highlight any differences in experience and data that you can explore further. Team-wide consensus on a risky idea, however, can show a potential iPhone-level innovation.

Speaking with your Insight Team, if your organisation has one, can offer a wealth of information. Their specialism centres around absorbing, processing and understanding masses of data and consumer opinion. A long-standing member of the Insight Team is potentially the least biased and will have the best grounding for well-founded intuition.

Intuition is invaluable to innovation

Intuition is an invaluable tool for innovators. It enables faster decision-making and can lead to more radical innovation and strategy ideas. However, be aware of two caveats: your brain needs to have had enough of the right input to develop a strong gut-feeling and you need to be able to differentiate between intuition and instinct (which comes from a place of fear or protection).

When using gut-instinct, ensure that a third party validates your opinion. Experts can offer a unique point-of-view and uncover any bias.

Don’t be tempted to force your intuition. It only appears when you are relaxed and not pressured by other people or deadlines. Some of the biggest leaps in iPhone development happened in a place called the dormitory – where the iPhone team brainstormed ideas over a humble slice of pizza.

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