#191 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 12          December 1995

Intuition:  A Newly Recognized Factor for Innovation in R&D
by Milton A. Glaser

Mr. Glaser, retired from Dexter Corporation, where he was vice president of R&D at the Midland division,  is now a consultant for research and development management.  His  Glaser Innovation Index has been used in many companies to increase laboratory output.  He can be reached in Glencoe, Illinois at (708) 835-1817).

At last!  The existence of intuition and its contributions to decision-making is being increasingly accepted by people in all areas of activity!  Even the idea of “expert intuitives,” those with exceptional intuitive skills in aiding decision-making is gaining credibility.

These striking statements apply equally to making decisions in general, as well as to decision problems in specific R&D matters.  While intuitive thought sometimes appears to defy rational reasoning, intuitive thought actually complements rational thinking when pure logic and reasoning aren’t enough.  The result is that we’re often able to make superior decisions when facts, figures and time are limited and/or where a troublesome degree of uncertainty exists.  Perhaps we’re truly embarking on new ways of thinking, attacking, and solving our ill-structured problems!

Companies like DuPont, Lockheed, Viacom, General Foods, and others are beginning to think so too.  They’re utilizing intuition consultants in their training courses on creativity and leadership skills.  A new journal, Intuition, has recently been launched, and the Intuition Network grows, now under the auspices of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. 

But why are so many research managers, trained in logical and analytical thinking, so uncomfortable with the idea that this elusive language of the mind, intuition, could be a vital factor in successful innovation?  Some research managers claim it’s because they cannot find a satisfying definition for the word.  Others say they hesitate about considering intuitive skills as an important resource because they don’t know how to measure it.  Oh, the comfort of numbers!

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Definitions

Intuition is a voice within, mystical and not easily defined.  But here are a few definitions which I like:

  an inner way of knowing

  apprehension without the intervention of any reasoning process

  wisdom communicated subliminally

(Note:  there aren’t totally satisfactory definitions for words like love, fear, pain, God, etc. either!)

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Trusting Intuition

Have you ever wondered why certain technologists consistently come up with important, innovative breakthroughs; while others, often with superior academic and intellectual credentials, rarely (if ever) do?  Well, part way in my career as an R&D executive, I often puzzled about this recurring observation.  After pondering the matter and continuing to make the relevant observation for some time, I concluded that the reason for this important and compelling phenomenon was that the breakthrough people used that ever-present unconscious illumination, called intuition, as a supplemental resource to buttress their rational findings.  They had a “sixth sense,” an extra dimension of thought, so that they knew when to question analytical data, statistics, literature information, or supervisor’s advice when making certain technical decisions.  They seemed to instinctively realize just what was needed to bring about positive results from situations of uncertainty.

Being a typical lab director who prided himself on the technical and economic productivity of his department and of its professional reputation, I naturally began to assign the difficult projects to those lab people whose past performances had demonstrated that they tended to regularly solve the “tough” problems.  The results were very positive.  Naturally, all departments of our company were pleased with our improved innovative output. 

Concurrently, I began to trust and use my own intuitive instincts when making choices on new R&D employees.  My “batting average” in hiring really productive new chemists improved greatly, and so did our innovative productivity.

How did my recognition of the importance of intuition help my employer?  (Assuredly, experienced collegial and intuitive participation from sales, marketing, manufacturing, engineering, quality assurance and top management were always vital partners to our lab successes.)  Here are some of our successes that I attribute to highly intuitive researchers:

  We were the first to envision and commercialize long sought-after high-heat, corrosion-resistant coatings for metals.

  We suspected that the heat-stable structure used for our high-heat coatings would also produce superior exterior coatings, which we then developed and licensed world-wide.

  We had a hunch that the newly available epoxy resins might make superior linings for aluminum beverage cans.  That hunch was correct and led to a major product line.

It is noteworthy that, in these cases as well as several more, we dominated the world market for many years.  We also gained a reputation for being an unusually innovative and desirable supplier to users of high-performance specialty chemical coatings.

Measuring Intuition

In 1987, I read about Weston H. Agor of the University of Texas (El Paso), who developed a test instrument for measuring and scoring intuition.  He’s given the test to thousands of senior managers in a variety of organizations.  Dr. Agor determined that managers with high test scores possessed superior decision-making skills when compared with counterpart managers with lower scores on the same test.

I contacted Dr. Agor and asked if he thought his test would be applicable to R&D people.  He encouraged me to find out. 

Agor’s Aim Survey consists of twelve deceptively simple psychological questions designed to evaluate a person’s potential intuitive abilities and fourteen other questions intended to indicate whether or not the individual uses those abilities to help guide decisions.  The test can be completed in fifteen minutes.

But, how could I validate that the results also apply to researchers?  After much thought, I finally selected eighteen of my long-term lab associates at Dexter Corporation and subjectively scored their intuitive abilities based on my own intimate familiarity with their work over at least ten years.  Then, the same individuals were scored on the Aim Survey.  The congruity between the two sets of scores was quite good. 

Then, I gave the test to 68 technologists of various disciplines and levels in several company laboratories.  It came out as a near-classical bell curve.  (The results have been published in Research•Technology Management, 38: 43, 1995.) When some of these people were re-tested a year later, their scores were basically the same as before.  So, I reasoned that the results of the test could be useful in making project assignments, especially with the newer scientists.

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Some Intuition Inhibitors

  Fear of failure

  Stress

  Boredom

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The Expert Intuitive

It’s generally thought that individuals who are highly intuitive in one domain (e.g. chemistry) may not be intuitive in other domains (e.g. people relationships).  The so-called “expert-intuitive” may well be an important exception to that concept.  Intuition is just one attribute of the creative mind.  Our thinking and decision-making are also initiated and sustained by education, experience, imagination, innate wisdom, ethical precepts, motivation, self-actuation, values, courage, etc.  In my experience, individuals possessing high intuitive skills just seem to be more creative and innovative--not only in R&D, but in other domains as well.

Conclusion

Can intuition--a psychological, perhaps mystical or even spiritual component of the human psyche--inspire R&D women and men to greater achievements?  The answer to this question must be a resounding “yes.”  Can available tests for intuitive abilities of R&D people be relied upon?  The answer here is “probably yes.”  Are there ways to enhance the intuitive abilities of technologists?  The answer here is again “probably yes.”

There’s still much to be learned about intuition’s sources, how it functions, how it’s sustained, it’s uses, and it’s limitations.  Today, reputable scholars of many disciplines are studying various aspects of the intuitive process.

Is intuition a meaningful component of what we blithely call “common sense?”  Are we then relying on common sense to solve difficult problems of all types?  Is intuition simply a breath of wisdom from the unconscious, bringing up our long-forgotten experiences and memories?  Or is intuition wisdom from a more remote unconscious, as some suggest, bringing back tribal or genetic memories from a universal reservoir?

Expert psychologists may argue about the sources and depths of intuitive powers, but without intuitives, the world would surely be a poorer and more desolate place.  Is intuition a vehicle for transmitting wisdom?  Many ancient people groped with the puzzle of non-rational thinking. 

So, how can we integrate these ideas constructively for ourselves and for our organizations?  How can we optimize the innovative talents stemming from each individual’s creativity and imagination?  I suggest:  by adding their intuitive skills to the resources they already use.  Albert Einstein said, “the really valuable thing is intuition,” and Emily Dickinson stated it poetically, “I deplore those who have only the facts but not the phosphorescence.”

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