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Should innovators trust their intuition more?

by Shelly Greenway

A quick Google search churns up endless articles and blogs extolling the virtues of using instinct, intuition and gut feel for making better business decisions and being more innovative. In this article I pick apart what governs intuition and how to use it for better insight interpretations and marketing decisions.

Where does intuition come from?

Intuition isn’t a magical power, a sixth sense or just someone’s lucky guess. Intuition is knowledge derived from the unconscious processing of multiple pieces of information; beliefs, experiences, memories and feelings – all processed subconsciously over time. 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 gut feel – more of a feeling than a thought. The mind-gut connection is actually a physical phenomenon, with hundreds of millions of neurones connecting the brain and enteric nervous system. If you feel intuitively that something is wrong, your gut will tell you.

Not surprisingly, there’s a functional, evolutionary reason for this. As hunter gatherers, intuition enabled us to sense the exact right moment to close in on our prey and make snap decisions about running away that kept us alive. No time for thinking there! Intuition is a tool for speeding things up.

Intuition has a role

Many marketers suffer from market information overload. Too many reports, metrics, market intelligence, reams of research and survey data. Trusting our intuition can be the answer.

A wonderfully simple illustration of this is the “Milwaukee vs. Detroit” experiment. A group of German students and a group of American students were asked which of these cities was larger. The Germans got it right because they guessed, based solely on which city they felt they had heard more about. The German group trusted their gut feel, whereas the American group got distracted by all the knowledge and information they had and got it wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell terms this phenomenon “thin-slicing” – honing in intuitively on a few chunks of data we intuitively 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.” What he’s doing is trusting his subconscious to have processed the collection of all relevant past experiences to give him the answer instantly. There’s no need to reprocess all the data consciously.

Why you can’t rely on your intuition only

Emotional attachments, inbuilt biases and over-analysing can all get in the way of successful intuiting. For example, Richard Branson’s impeccable intuition has occasionally let him down – by backing Body Shop rival: Virgin Vie Cosmetics. (Consumers didn’t share the enthusiasm for cosmetics and aeroplanes.)

Human instinct is to protect and remain safe, which can lead to some very safe behaviours (not the kind leading to radical innovation). On top of this, our personal experiences, especially the negative ones, lead to inbuilt biases that we’re not conscious of. For example, we may have an emotional investment in a new NPD idea that we just can’t see past. Solely trusting our own intuition therefore could be leading us up the garden path. It’s about becoming aware of our biases or acknowledging a lack of experience.

How to use intuition in innovation

Experience and expertise are the prerequisites for effective thin-slicing. It’s good practice to seek advise 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 simply speaking to your consumer. Qual that gives you a good feel for your consumer target may be more helpful than quant that may lead you to over-think.

If you disagree with your boss – fantastic! If you can pinpoint why you disagree, it highlights a difference of data input that you can go and delve into. If everyone on the team however agrees that a risky new idea feels right – even though you don’t really have proof – chances are you’re onto a winner!

Speak to your Insight Team. Their world is about absorbing, processing and understanding the mass 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 an invaluable tool that enables faster decision making and backs more radical innovation and strategy ideas. Be aware however of the two caveats: your brain needs to have had enough of the right input to develop good gut feel and you’re able to differentiate between intuition and instinct (human programming to act from a place of fear/ protection).

Confirm your gut feel: get second opinions and check for bias. Also consult with experts. Then sit back and wait for the magic! Your gut will only speak to you when relaxed and not being pressured by other people. There’s a reason great ideas happen in the shower!


This article was originally published on the website of The Strategy Distillery.

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Shelly GreenwayShelly Greenway is a front-end innovation strategist and partner at The Strategy Distillery –  a brand innovation consultancy that specialises in opportunity hunting and proposition development. Their success rates are driven by their proprietary consumer co-creation IP.

About Shelly Greenway

Front-end Innovation Strategist at The Strategy Distillery, a brand innovation consultancy that exists to increase NPD success rates.


  1. Richard Haasnoot

    I understand your general point but your use of the word “intuition” just is not correct. It is not “intuition is knowledge derived from the unconscious processing of multiple pieces of information; beliefs, experiences, memories and feelings – all processed subconsciously over time.”
    A dictionary definition is a small starting place: “immediate apprehension or cognition without reasoning or inferring.”
    The great wisdom traditions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and others) all define intuition with these key elements.
    First, intuition is inner knowing, meaning that it requires no inputs of any kind outside of us. Put another way, we acquire knowledge from the external world and intuition from inner knowing.
    Second, as inner knowing, it has absolutely nothing to do with the subconscious.
    Third, we all have the potential for intuition but it is latent in well over 90% of the population.
    Fourth, as one of the wisdom traditions says, “wisdom is the voice of our soul.” Our soul is that spark of divinity that exists in all humans.
    Lastly, intuition is the ability to know anything at any time with absolute truth – not the relative truth of knowledge and human reasoning.
    Tapping into intuition requires the ability to quiet the monkey mind so we can hear the quiet “voice” of our intuition. Doing this requires meditation.
    I am a long time and serious student of the wisdom traditions and I meditate two hours every day of my life.
    I am also in the front and innovation business (Innovate2Grow Experts/i2ge.com) and the creative design business (Blue Sage Creative/bluesagecreative.com). As I have slowly developed my intuition over the decades, it has become a great and trusted “friend” that leads me to care for and serve the needs of others.
    I hope this helps.
    Richard Haasnoot, richard@i2ge.com

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