#42 from R&D
Innovator Volume 2, Number 6
The Spark That Fuels Vision
Emery is an adjunct faculty member
in the Masters In Management Program at Aquinas College, Grand
Rapids, Michigan. Her
book, The Power of
Intuition (Prentice-Hall), will be published in autumn, 1993.
What makes a
company owner risk everything to go against both
"the numbers" and the recommendations of trusted advisors? Why does a
manager put a career on the line by pushing decisions that flout
the accepted wisdom? And
what is the true origin of "hare-brained" ideas that end
up making history in an organization?
consider hunches or gut
feelings to be true indications of what is right, even if the
facts say otherwise. In an interview, Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway
Corporation, emphasized the inhibiting effect of operating
strictly by the numbers. In
his view, total reliance on facts limits the adventurous spirit
that's crucial to the process of innovation and discovery.
DeVos thinks that facts will tell you to do nothing, will
give you a litany of reasons why an idea will not work.
Companies advance, he says, when intuition is integrated
The hunch, the
gut feeling, the sudden insight, the flash out of the blue—all
these are evidence of intuition.
An intuitive Aha! often
impels a decision-maker into unprecedented action, new areas of
endeavor, or innovative solutions to longstanding problems.
Intuition allows for correct decisions, even before all the
facts are in.
at Work: Some Examples
Fred Keller, President of Cascade Engineering (a growing
plastic-design firm), to suddenly expand his American-based
company to Eastern European markets?
An intuitive flash captured his attention and told him to "go East,"
just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Without having any factual information about that impending
event, he listened to his hunch and initiated a highly successful
Mr. DeVos and Mr.
Keller were among the corporate executives I interviewed while
researching intuitive decision-making by leaders in business and
industry. My findings underscored those of previous researchers, who
found that executives indeed combine intuition with logic. Decision-making involves more than reliance on computer
printouts. Though no
one I interviewed disregarded facts and figures, each person
definitely used intuition to augment data.
This integrated practice follows Dr. Jonas Salk's succinct
observation: The intuitive mind tells the thinking mind where to
Voice of Discovery
Perhaps the most
vivid example of the influence of intuition as a “voice of
discovery” is the action of Frank Merlotti, the retired CEO of
Steelcase (a well-known manufacturer of office furniture).
Steelcase needed more room for employees, many of whom were
working in residential trailers attached to the main building.
initial goal was to improve the physical structure of the
workplace, but the planning process unexpectedly led to a more
dynamic change. Architects
suggested a five- or six-story building, a couple of hundred
thousand square feet, for the engineering department. During the design process, a seemingly unrelated problem
surfaced: Why was
product development taking so long?
Merlotti’s hunch told him that the issues of building
design and product timelines might be related.
He consulted with two behavioral scientists, who suggested
that employees be assigned to product families, rather than to
segregated departments of marketing, design, manufacturing and
Now people from
all disciplines work in the same locale so that entire teams can
interact on new products. The
unique pyramid structure that resulted from Merlotti's hunch
spreads across several floors, and people are grouped by teams and
product lines. Based
on a powerful hunch, Merlotti took the risk of interrupting the
original building plans in order to seek the best possible working
insight changed a fairly clear decision to construct a building
into a full-scale organizational change.
The entire building process was reversed—instead of
constructing a building to "house workers," the
interaction among the creative staff dictated the building design.
Where does the
elusive Aha! come from
and how can it be harnessed?
The experience of my respondents strongly suggests that the
intuitive voice does not speak only to the privileged, talented
few. Many people rely
on this voice when making daily decisions with incomplete facts
and limited time. The
CEOs and managers I interviewed knew
what the intuitive voice sounded like.
For the rest of us, acknowledging this voice and honoring
its suggestions are the next step on the journey.