“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Mar 2016 | Does Intuition Help or Hinder Innovation?

In my February post, I wrote about how innovative ideas spring from insights – realisation of a solution or a path to it. Where and how do insights germinate? It is necessary to understand that to foster creativity and innovation.

Two systems of thinking
We think using two mostly parallel minds – intuitive, and analytical. Intuitive thinking is spontaneous, automatic, and effortless. It is extensional, associative, and extrapolative. It is extremely quick to make sense of available information and help us assess risk, generalise, and judge future events.

We do not have to think to determine which of two buildings is taller, to multiply 2X2, or to cross a busy street. It is our intuition or System 1 at work. But when we have to estimate the height of a building, calculate gain or loss from selling stock, or plan a journey, we need System 2, or analytical thinking. Analytical or rational thinking is slow, deliberate, effortful, rule based, yet flexible.

Intuition: the flawed angel
System 1 is the source of ideas. It makes sense of partial data and quickly proposes a solution. The analytical mind evaluates, accepts or rejects it. System 1 is a marvel. It was the source of Archimedes’s Eureka. It is the one we use when we play a hunch and come out on top. Unfortunately, it also makes occasional systematic errors of judgement – cognitive bias – that can lead to grievous mistakes.

Edison, the prolific inventor and genius, failed to acknowledge the superiority of alternating current (AC) over his own invention, direct current (DC). He waged a fruitless, relentless battle against it. Martin Cooper, the pioneer of wireless communications asserted, “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” Steve Chen, co-founder of You Tube was pessimistic about its popularity and said,“There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” Bias distorts assessment of future – a vital quality of innovative thinking – and limits exploration of new, creative ideas.

Intuition helps us to spontaneously make assumptions and frame problems to quicken search for solutions. It also distorts perception and leads to poor decisions.

Bias changed the course of history
Napoleon overestimated French military prowess and underestimated the perils of the harsh Russian winter. He attacked Russia in summer of 1812 but failed to win its capitualtion before winter set in. The misadventure, by some accounts, contributed to the weakening of his Army and subsequent defeat in 1815.

A day after Allies invaded Normandy In the Second World War, his generals begged Hitler to release elite troops and Panzers, the feared German tank division he had held in reserve. For several days Hitler refused because he believed Allied landing would be in Calais. By the time he ordered the reserves into battle, it was too late.

Intuition is directly responsible for the marvels of human ingenuity. Insights spring from intuition when System 1 connects dots, spots contradictions, or uses analogies to solve problems.

Mocking birds and Darwin’s Intuition
On his voyage on HMS Beagle Charles Darwin observed how species adapted. In the Galapagos islands, he found mockingbirds were different from one island to another. Only when he read Malthus’s essay on population growth, two years later, did he see how natural selection led to adaptation for survival when species competed for resources. His insight emerged slowly as his intuition found the connection.

Insights emerge from the work of the intuitive mind. Unfortunately, intuition also causes occasional but systematic bias that inhibits creativity. It is clear that unfettering intuition encourages innovation. It is also true that bias can be a hindrance.

How should an innovative organisation manage the opposite forces of intuitive insight and cognitive bias? I will deal with it in my April post.

Read my February post about how insights spur creativity and innovation.