#21 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 1          January 1993

Taking Advantage of Intuition
by Weston H. Agor, Ph.D.

Dr. Agor is professor of public management at the University of Texas at El Paso and director of the Global Intuition Network.  He is author of Intuition in Organizations (Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA, 1989).

Why can some researchers jump from limited data to the right conclusion?  Why, for example, did Nikola Tesla "know" that alternating current would be easier to use and transport than the direct current Thomas Edison was promoting so vigorously? 

The ability to reach conclusions quickly is becoming increasingly important in science and technology.  I'm sure many research leaders have, upon learning of a competitor's advance, remembered that someone on the team suggested the same approach several years earlier.  Unfortunately, because not every step could be explained when the idea was presented, it was dismissed.

My guess is that this ignored researcher was probably highly intuitive.  But aren't scientists supposed to be logical, organized, systematic, not intuitive?  Everyone accepts the need for researchers like this—they are adept at organizing and implementing plans, obtaining and analyzing data, writing reports, and dealing with day-to-day details.

But these "thinking" types are not sufficient for laboratories that want to prosper in these challenging times.  These labs also need "intuitives"—people who can see problems and opportunities in totally new ways. 

In tomorrow's research climate, you will be forced to make more decisions in a less traditional  manner.  You will need to reach decisions without sufficient data or when information is too costly to assemble.  It is in precisely this kind of decision-making climate that intuitive skills are most useful.

People who are highly intuitive function best in complex, rapidly changing situations.  They like to wrestle with the unknown and to choose among alternatives that are all backed by good arguments.  They thrive when facing a high level of uncertainty, when time is limited, and when precedent is lacking.

Identifying "Intuitives"

If you know your colleagues, you can probably spot the intuitive ones.  They challenge traditional assumptions.  They prefer non-routine tasks and informal work styles and settings.  Often their bursts of energy are followed by slow periods.  They solve problems by following hunches instead of traditional logic, often bouncing around from the back of a problem to the front rather than reasoning in a sequence.

In contrast, "thinkers" follow routines and step-by-step procedures and often prefer a standard work schedule.  They are great for many crucial tasks, have good follow-through, and seem "steadier"—more reliable.

Both thinking and intuitive people have certain strengths (see Table 1).  But problems arise when the two types must collaborate.  When the intuitives' ideas are criticized—and they often are—they lose interest and withdraw.  As a result, fewer ideas are generated, and those that surface are often scuttled before receiving a fair hearing. 

Table 1.  Strengths of Intuitive and Thinking Researchers

Thinking Researcher

  Careful with details

  Strong on follow-through and implementation

  Enjoys handling routine and repetitive tasks

  Works smoothly day to day

Intuitive Researcher

  Good at generating ideas

  Good, creative problem-solver

  Can spot emerging trends

  Can make sense of situations even if data are limited or unavailable

Getting the Best from Both 

Clearly, what we need is a climate and a method that allow intuitive brain skills to flourish and be integrated with traditional approaches.  In its essence, this method uses segregation during the early phases of idea generation and criticism, then collaboration during the final stage.  The goal, simply, is to get the best of both worlds.  You can dramatically improve each group's output—and the joint product of the groups—by having the groups address the same issue in separate stages, rather than in one room at one time (see Table 2).

Table 2.  Taking Advantage of Thinking Styles to Solve Problems

 

Step I

Step II

Step III

Action

Select and assign intuitive group

Select and assign thinking group

Integrate the groups

 

Capabilities

 

Can see possibilities,

ingenious,

can deal with complexities and imponderables

 

Can see facts, analyze, organize, and find flaws

 

Can identify new ideas that can be practically implemented,

is conciliatory and persuasive

When you face a tough problem, I believe it's best to start with step I:  Separating the intuitives from the thinkers, so ideas can surface freely and receive an open hearing.  This way, you will get more and better suggestions from the intuitives because they no longer face a "cold war" of criticism from thinkers.   

Ideas that pass that stage (and are still generating enthusiasm) should go on to step II:  Selecting thinkers to evaluate the suggestions.  Thus you will still obtain the benefits of the critical review (although at an unusually late stage in the process). 

This process vastly improves the ultimate quality of the final product because intuitive people tend to be careless with facts and details, especially during implementation.

Finally, assemble groups for step III:  Discussing and refining the final product.  Technique is critical at this point, so be sure to select a leader who can facilitate interaction between the various thinking styles in the group.  If done correctly, each member will feel ownership of the final product, thus enhancing the likelihood of implementation. 

Once you understand the virtues and uses of intuition, only one question remains:  Can you use your staff's intuition to help your group find critical ideas and overcome the complex problems of these challenging times?

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