#42 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 6          June 1993

Intuition:  The Spark That Fuels Vision
by Marcia Emery, Ph.D.

Dr. 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?

Many people 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 into decision-making.

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.

Intuition at Work: Some Examples

What prompted 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 move.

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 look next.

The 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.

Merlotti's 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 engineering.

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 environment.

An intuitive 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 to Start

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.

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