Innovation Essentials: Testing Our Intuitions

Great innovations are often based on powerful intuitions, but we all know examples of someone thinking they have a great intuition and being misguided. So where does intuition fit into innovation and how do we know when we can rely on it?

You’ve no doubt heard the long-running debate: Should we trust our intuitions, or distrust them? On one side, we hear that top executives have developed good intuitions, that they make good decisions by “going with their gut.” We’re told that when a woman feels uncomfortable about a stranger approaching her on the street, she should “trust her intuitions.”

On the other side, we’re reminded of all the many ways we can be mistaken, and so we’re cautioned not to trust our intuitions, and always look at the evidence, the data instead. Personally, I think the whole conversation tends to miss the mark. The important question isn’t whether or not we should trust our intuitions, but rather: How can we test our intuitions to determine how reliable they are? Which is to say: How can we use data and experience to enhance our intuitions?

We should treat an intuition as exactly what it is: a hunch, a feeling, a hypothesis, an idea, a question. Then, instead of assuming we already have the answer to that question, we need to figure out how to get an answer. We need to explore and experiment. An intuition is an important starting point. Without one, we have nothing to test. But the key is to gather feedback that will tell us when our intuitions are useful and when they’re not.

Dan Ariely, a Behavioral Economist at MIT and the author of Predictably Irrational gave a TED talk in which he made this point as eloquently as I’ve ever heard it made. (If a little more than 16 minutes is more time than you can spare, just watch the first two minutes and jump to 14:00 minutes in and watch the last two minutes or so and you’ll get the gist of it.) Ariely offers a number of examples of misguided intuitions and the misfortunes they can cause.

In their book The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chambris and Daniel Simons take this thinking even further and talk about how misguided we are in our intuitions about the reliability of our intuitions. They note that the simple assumption that what we look at is what we see, is often untrue. We routinely fail to see things that are in our field of vision…and at the same time we fail to notice that we have failed to notice them. Because we don’t receive any feedback that tells us our intuition is wrong, we continue to hold the same intuition. (Unless for example what we fail to see is another car or a pedestrian and we hit it, which is partly their point.)

A willingness to test their intuitions is one of the things that most distinguishes accomplished innovators. They have the courage to pursue their intuitions but they don’t just run with them and assume the best. They probe for flaws and contrary data. Instead of assuming that they have dreamed up something brilliant, they want to find out just how good an idea it may be. So they gather feedback and check themselves. They seek input and perspectives and impressions from others.

The best innovators continually test their intuitions—and revise those intuitions based on that feedback. It’s by repeating this cycle of generating and testing new ideas, of iterating their thinking, that they become more proficient at producing powerful and reliable intuitions. The paradox is that it’s by questioning and probing our intuitions—not just trusting them—that we enhance those intuitions over time…and that produces intuitions that are more trustworthy.

When we have a promising intuition, it’s important to value it enough to pursue it, while maintaining enough skepticism to identify its shortcomings, so we can learn how to make it even better.

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