|Intuitive Minds: What is Intuition?|
TEXT: LEENA KOSKENLAAKSO
Intuition allows you to make split-second decisions. But in order to be a good leader, you need solid experience and a tactical maneuvering ability to back it up.
“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis,” says Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, a book about rapid cognition. The part of our brain that can leap to spontaneous split-second decisions and quick judgments based on very little evidence is called the adaptive unconscious.
According to Gladwell, the study of this kind of decision making is one of the most important new fields in psychology. But he admits we are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition, which is another word for intuition. And he is not the only one to admit it.
“We are all born with the ability or possibility to be intuitive, but not all of us are willing to develop our intuition further, or to access our intuitive potential in uncertain situations. Many leaders prefer ‘real proof or certainty’ before deciding, and this preference negates or diminishes the importance of intuition in their leadership approach and development,” says consultant Ben Nothnagel of Benna Oy.
He is a member of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and acts as a lecturer for Aalto University Executive Education in their leadership training programs in China, Poland, Taiwan, the United States, Finland and Malaysia.
Vital in uncertain situations
“Intuition, of course, is ultimately a brain process. I see intuitive leadership as the ability to access your implicit knowledge and experience in an unconscious process, a willingness to trust your situational instinct, and the confidence to apply or implement your intuition. And the ability to learn is a vital component of intuition.”
Nothnagel suggests that there is less need for intuition in stable situations where facts are clear and business outcomes can be predicted by using rational business models and ‘provable’ or rational reasoning. “But the ability to be intuitive becomes important in
He is convinced that as certainty diminishes in a global business world, the ability to be intuitive will be an increasingly important quality and criterion of successful leaders.
Accuracy improves with age
“For me, intuition is strongly based on experience,” says Pekka Laaksonen, chief executive officer of Valio, the biggest milk processor in Finland.
“I find it quite difficult to tell when it is analytical thinking that I am using, and when it is intuition that is being activated. Intuition is a very natural process that improves with age and experience. Also young people use their intuitive knowledge, but the older you get, the more the accuracy of your intuition is enhanced, and the more hits you get.”
Intuition researchers have claimed that intuition is especially useful in situations where there is either too much or too little information, but Laaksonen does not agree.
“I think this comes down to how you as a leader use your time. As soon as you come across a new idea or situation, you must be able to intuitively assess whether it has commercial potential and whether it makes sense economically. This is the most useful type of intuition in business that will not turn out well in the end. When you are developing new products, your inner computer must immediately be able to tell whether there exists a market for the product, and whether you are truly competitive on that market.”
Useful in business processes
At Valio, there is room for intuition in many business processes. “We have three business processes which probably exist in all companies. Firstly, we have the order and delivery process, secondly, the product development and marketing
“By default, the product development and marketing process, which involves renewal, research and development, and creation of both new products and new marketing concepts, is very innovation centered and therefore open to intuition. But there are many stages in product development. At the initial stage, there is very much space for intuition, but the further we get in the development process, the more rigorous the process gets, and the more testing is involved. New milk-based products such as yogurts are always tested in blind taste tests, and if the majority of the people who taste a new product do not like it, the product is not launched to the market.”
If a company is not able to bring new products to the market it will die eventually, says Laaksonen, and if production does not work properly, the end result is the same. But the use of intuition is not limited to a particular business process.
“There is tremendous potential for intuitive insight in the order and delivery process. And the same applies also to the customer interface. We must have spontaneous insight into how our customers can succeed and prosper with our products. Here, only the sky is the limit.”
Cannot force intitution
Running a business involves three levels: the operative basic level, the tactical level, and the strategic level.
“Young people graduating from universities have an extremely high ability to grasp strategies and operative daily problems, such as how a machine works. All of this requires rational thinking. But as soon as we approach tactical questions, they just do not get it – they cannot come up with a quick tactical solution. Tactical decision making calls for speed, and speed in decision making can only be achieved through experience that has been accrued over time,” Laaksonen points out.
“To be able to make quick tactical decisions, your intuitive inner computer must be in good working order. You must instantaneously see where the money comes from, and what kind of decision is necessary in the situation at hand.”
According to Laaksonen, you cannot force intuition. “As we live our daily lives, we come across different situations that must be solved appropriately. The way you lead others is important, for it is the employees who are a company’s most important asset. As a leader, you set the targets, provide the resources and try to get people to assume responsibility for the tasks assigned to them. And finally you measure the outcome.”
“Do not trust any fixed formulas,” Laaksonen urges. “Use your own intuition to find your own way. Keep an open mind, separate correlations from causalities, and develop your ability to focus and analyze things quickly by practicing continuous learning and collecting a lot of stuff on the hard drive of your inner computer. This way, you will learn to see where the beef is.”
Teaching intuition in schools
As long as intuition is not being taught in schools, we cannot take advantage of its vast potential.
“Scientific research during the recent decades has changed the earlier notion of human beings as purely analytical and rational actors,” says Asta Raami, lecturer, designer and researcher at Aalto University School of Art and Design in Helsinki.
“It has been demonstrated scientifically that we think both logically and intuitively. When combined with rational thinking, intuition constitutes an integral part of humanity. Yet the use of intuition is taught in schools only very seldom.”
Raami and her Aalto University researcher colleague Samu Mielonen, CEO of Antimatter Design Oy, have studied intuition in the Intuition in Creative Processes research project of 2008–2011, funded by the Academy of Finland. They have also coached more than one hundred students in the Coaching Creativity courses provided by the Media Lab at Aalto University School of Art and Design during years 2004–2011.
“Much of the course focused on developing intuitive skills. It was pioneering work, and many times it forced us to enter our own discomfort zones,” as Raami puts it.
Intuitive abilities are boosted especially during art classes and in various subjects requiring skills of the hand, but conscious exercises that train students to develop and exploit intuition are not being taught in primary schools or in universities, Raami and Mielonen point out.
“Intuition is a culturally difficult topic that raises an emotional defense. It is belittled and marginalized as ‘girly stuff,’ and intuition researchers are often taken for weirdos. We lack even the vocabulary to properly describe intuitive experiences,” notes Mielonen.
Intuition is the most important ingredient in creativity – both artistic and scientific – according to the researcher duo. But they say developing intuitive skills should not be limited to art classes. Also physics and math students would benefit from intuitive thinking.
Thinking rationally, it makes sense to develop your intuition. Mere analytical thinking is not enough, so school teachers and researchers should get together to devise new ways of teaching intuitive skills. The first intuition course for teachers, launched at Aalto University in autumn 2011, is a first step in this direction.