Should Innovators Trust Their Intuition More?

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 we attempt to pick apart what governs intuition in the first place 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 something’s 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 woman and two men have been cartoon drawn in black and white, they are all in suits sitting around a desk. There is a text caption underneath which says 'Let's shrink Big Data...and hope it magically becomes Great Data'. A wonderfully simple 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 it right because they guessed, based solely on which city they felt they had heard more about. The German students trusted their gut feel, whereas the Americans got distracted by all the knowledge and information they had and got it wrong. 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 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 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.

A photo taken from the perspective of a person looking down from a high building. Two legs and feet are dangling from a height, there are sky scrapers in the background.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 enabling faster decision making and backing 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 or protection).

Confirm your gut feel: Get second opinions and check for bias. Also consult with experts from an agency that specialises in innovation consultancy. 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!