The Hidden Link Between Innovation and Intuition


It’s no secret that organizations feverishly demand innovation. Yet most struggle to create a culture that fosters it with any sustainability, if at all. Without innovation, businesses eventually flatline; making it absolutely essential to their growth. So why is innovation so difficult for most of us? The answer is: we actually don’t understand it. There is a hidden connection (albeit, hidden in plain sight) between innovation and a growing body of research on intuition. Without leveraging our intuitive powers, innovation remains relatively obscure.


Getting Our Facts Straight


By definition, innovation is creating something new and useful, which, far beyond ongoing product/service enhancement, can actually disrupt entire industries. That’s a tall order that can only occasionally be fulfilled. Yet within the scientific, engineering development, and marketing circles where much innovation work is concentrated, the process is fiercely co-dependent on already accepted facts, tests and processes. That is, in fact, the opposite of how true innovative leaps occur!


To be clear: all facts are constructed. They are not absolute, as science likes to pretend they are. They are fluid and dynamic like our minds. Scientific method tells us facts can be proven either true or false. If not, then it is pseudoscience. But here’s the interesting, uh, fact: there is no clear test for what a fact is.


Don’t believe me? Well, when Albert Einstein was asked how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered, “There is no objective test.”


What innovators must do then is make assumptions – leaps of insight, based on fact, but not tied to it absolutely. For everyone assumptions are a necessary foundation for every decision we make. Everything we believe is based on an unending daisy chain of assumptions. New assumptions get introduced at key points during any decision or innovation, and if they prove fruitful, we integrate those in and keep going. If a fact comes along, such as the world is round, instead of flat, then we can reorganize our assumptions around these new facts and make fresh choices.


The Neuroscience of Innovation


Currently most innovators hold the belief that before new ideas can be implemented , they must rationally validate it using pristine logic, untainted by any emotion whatsoever. Yet marketers and neuroscientists know that is not only wrong, it’s backwards.


In fact, emotions precede and inform rational understanding. Every decision begins with emotion, in our unconscious mind. All. Of. Them.


Not only that, our rational mind, which is only about ten percent of our brain’s total power, is slow, and inefficient. It works best when it is tasked with finding data to support the must faster (and more accurate) leaps of insight from our unconscious mind. That is one of the primary locations of our intuition, which, by definition is that state of knowing, without knowing how we know.


Counter to this, is the almost complete dependency organizations have built on assessing an innovation’s viability using rational analysis. I am not alone in arguing that this is why there is an abysmal failure rates of new innovations, and therefore, the tests used to validate them. Most ideas that pass our rigorous rational analyses go on to fail in market–about 80% of the new products launched in the US. The problem is we have placed our trust in the wrong approach.


The Most Famous Innovators Relied on Intuition First


Steve Jobs, infamous for his reliance on intuition, also refused innovation testing. He has been quoted countless times with statements such as “Intuition is a very powerful thing. More powerful than intellect.” James Dyson, British billionaire and inventor of the Dyson dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, as well as Dietrich Mateschitz, Austrian billionaire co-founder of the Red Bull energy drink, both did pre-testing on their ideas, but fortunately ignored the reports that told them they wouldn’t work. So much for the validity of testing results. And Apple, Dyson and Red Bull respectively, created revolutionary products and dominated entirely new categories.


Albert Einstein was another famous proponent of intuition, saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Implying, not that one thought process is superior or inferior, but that they are designed to work in concert. His approach was to turn to intuition first, however, adding, “Intuition is the only real thing.”


Not surprisingly other great inventors, such as Nikolai Tesla, who sold his patent for the electric light bulb to Thomas Edison, and invented most of the technology used today in all our digital innovations, said, “Instinct is something which transcends knowledge. We have, undoubtedly, certain finer fibers that enable us to perceive truths when logical deduction, or any other willful effort of the brain, is futile.”


If these brilliant, innovative, and scientific minds have been such outspoken advocates for intuition as a prerequisite for innovation, what is holding the rest of us back?


The Issue of Trust and Experimentation


We are not taught how to tap into our intuitive thinking reliably, much less trust it. Although many centuries ago we did embrace intuitive thinking, today we crave the known and the proven path to success already pre-validated by the herd. The only problem is: no one ever innovated in the herd. The herd is about safety, and innovation as well as intuition, is about a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. You can’t innovate in safety. You can’t intuit based on what is known.


Certainty is not the real world. The truly innovative, and therefore, disruptive ideas rarely make it through the gauntlet of rational assessment, because they’re being measured against average old ideas, not revolutionary new ones.


I am not implying we have to forego logic, or rational assessments, in order to innovate. I am implying such tools have profound limits in innovation and we apply them far to liberally, and entirely too soon in the process.


Creating Innovation Using Intuition


Intuition is a judgement-free zone by its very nature. It is neither excited by nor afraid of any idea. The excitement and concern arise from our ego once the intuition presents its insight for review. The trick to using intuition effectively in the innovation process is to suspend the knee-jerk response of our ego for just a few beats longer than feels entirely comfortable.


Here is the creating alternatives (AKA Innovation Process) found in my new book, Inside Out Smart, which launched yesterday.


Whether we are exploring possibilities for one person or a team of ten or twenty, possibility starts in the same place: the brainstorm. During the brainstorm we are asked to individually come up with as many possibilities as we can in a finite period of time. I ask my clients to list five to ten things they could possibly (not probably) try to move towards the outcome they desire. I tell them this is a criticism- and judgment-free zone at this point.


If the idea of aliens coming down out of the sky and handling the situation for you pops into your head, write it down. If you think winning the lottery is possible, write that down. I almost always get these options during a workshop since I present them before we begin. That’s perfectly fine. A little laughter frees us up to be more creative, so I say do whatever gets you out of the starting gate! Of course, I imagine aliens and lotteries would be some of the less probable solutions in most cases, but that’s the level of possibility we are reaching for at this point. Anything goes.


The reason it is important to allow any idea into the room is because as each fantastical option comes up unchallenged, our unconscious, right-brained, EQ-centric thinking has greater freedom and confidence. One fantastical idea spurs another idea, and another. Some of those ideas may have some truly actionable inspiration in them, which otherwise would have remained in the shadows, afraid of the inevitable smackdown from our highly opinionated, rational, left-brained, IQ-centric mind. That is why we absolutely must muffle the “That will never work!” knee-jerk responses at this initial phase.


Muffling our own inner critic can be hard enough on our own, but it is even harder in a room full of our peers and authorities. We want to look good and present the “winning” idea, after all. Also, so many of us are used to mindlessly responding from our own perspective and agenda immediately, without allowing the exploration to evolve. We feel compelled (and sometimes with disarming politeness) to control whether each idea lives or dies at its inception. This is just the social version of “That will never work, because…” Polite or not, it is against the rules of our little game.


The way to assuage this tendency is with a combination of techniques. Once again, use these on yourself, or use them in a group. Just make sure you communicate the guidelines to the group at the outset, in advance of the brainstorming, and if someone missteps and defaults back to arguing with an idea, gently redirect them back to the process the rest of the group has agreed to use.


At first this will feel like chaos. Good! Chaos is the beginning of a new, higher order of solution. So, hang out in that chaotic space a little longer. If the problem is worth a brainstorm, it is worth investing your time dwelling in possibility.

The techniques for exploring possibility in a group setting are as follows:

  1. Invite each individual to make a list of options, good, bad, or indifferent. The objective is volume. Set a time limit.

  2. Either place all options in a pool and vote on which ones to explore further, without explanation, or invite each individual to self-identify their top two or three options they believe may have potential.

  3. Invite the group to work together (smaller group) or in breakout groups (larger group) to put the top ideas through a structured inquiry:

  4. Play devil’s advocate with the idea, however much you personally love it or hate it. “This idea presents some attractive options, and I see where it could work, but let me play devil’s advocate with it for a moment…” and present some possible gaps and challenges, or additional insights.

  5. Ask coaching questions (coaching questions are positive, are never leading or rhetorical; invite a broader, forward-looking perspective; and never begin with “why”): “This is a really interesting idea. What would happen if…?” or “This is quite original. How could we…?”

  6. Refine the ideas, with a narrowed selection, with each idea clarified so it has enough detail to be a viable alternative.

Once the field of candidates is narrowed, the group can finally begin to assess which idea—and occasionally, ideas—it will begin to take action on. At this point, a possibility transitions into a probability, with a great deal of buy-in and very little posturing or conflict.


Using intuition in this way is not just the process used by marketers and other creatives. This is how engineers, scientists, researchers and a host of other, more “analytical” teams can innovate faster and more effectively from day one. Right now, nothing is more important. Mere product enhancements will not move us forward. Innovation is the imperative non-negotiable.

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