The Value of (Business) Intuition

A little while ago, I was asked to summarize my work of training and educating businesses on the potential of intuition in a short article. As you may imagine, having written an entire dissertation on the topic and devoted much of my academic career to study the intricacies of intuitive judgment and decision making, the task of summarizing what I feel to be important about the topic was a daunting one.

No matter how much I wrote, there was always this lingering feeling, that I was cheating you. Eventually though, I realized that I am not doing anyone a service, by overwhelming them with heaps of information, which has taken me 8+ years to compile and digest.

So I ask you to consider this an introduction. I have tried to give you a brief overview of why I believe that bringing intuition back into the fold of important mental assets to utilize and train is not only valuable but necessary. I conclude with some practical considerations — if that’s your main interest, feel free to skip to the end! If putting things into practice is your main goal, I’m happy to support you in the endeavor. For now, I wish you happy reading!

In the business world of today, we seldom have access to all information relevant to making a decision. I believe that this is why (agile) methods such as serious play, design thinking, improvisation training  etc. are gaining such popularity. Businesses are starting to realize that unless we train our mind(set) towards curiosity and play and away from the need to control every step of the process, we will not be able to innovate. Innovation is by definition uncertain and unpredictable. So how do we stay flexible and functional in the face of this uncertainty? How can we know if our choice will be correct, when we cannot know all factors involved?

In a VUCA1 world, in which disruption is the new normal and we find ourselves in permanent beta status, we can no longer afford to discount the intelligence of an integral part our cognitive processes: our intuition. What do I mean when I say intuition? 2

“Intuition is a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, but that is strong enough to act upon”.

- Gerd Gigerenzer, “Gut feelings: the Intelligence of the Unconscious”

Time and again we see that in situations of uncertainty and complexity, intuition outshines rationality. In fact, what much of contemporary intuition research converges on is that these are in fact the boundary conditions under which intuition operates well.

Entrepreneurial intuition: the elusive genius

It is paradoxical, then, that intuition continues to be treated with this curious hypocrisy. On the one hand, people working on the cutting-edge of their fields, including those operating at the highest level of corporate strategy, will readily tell you that they rely on their intuition to inform business decisions. Prominent examples include a line-up of the most revered entrepreneurs: from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos.

“The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why”.

- Albert Einstein

It makes sense, right? What else is there to rely on? How do you expect to rely on previous knowledge to inform a decision within a future realm that may very well operate under conditions as yet unknown or unexplored by you? Eugene Sadler-Smith, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Surrey Business School and one of the most prolific researchers on intuition in the business context, proposes that in the discovery of business venturing opportunities, for example, intuitive expertise and cognitive style play a significant role. 3

“Intuition can handle a mass of experience, or a complex of abstractions, in a flash".

- C. Barnard, “The Functions of The Executive”

At the same time, within traditional management practices, decision-making structures are set-up in a way that undermines intuitive decision-making; making it next to impossible for employees to explicitly say that they “followed their gut” to make a decision, without having to fear repercussions.

The power of stories

I believe this discrepancy arises because the story we have been telling about intuition has in large parts been wrong - or at the very least, misleading and incomplete. Which is important, because it has caused us to be spellbound by this idea of rational analysis - an idea largely founded on the repeated telling of one perspective of a story: the story of heuristics and biases. There is a lot to be learned from looking at the history of this research, and I have done so in an upcoming article. For now, suffice to say that intuition has historically been undervalued (seen as mostly biased), whereas rationality has been overvalued (seen as largely objective and infallible).

But all cognitive processes are susceptible to biases, as has been illustrated for decades by academics in the fields of cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics (an impressive visual overview, detailing 188 cognitive biases, can be found here). Confirmation bias, for example, shows that we seek data to support what we already believe -- a bias which is at the basis of many decisions the decision maker would describe as analytical. Because these unconscious biases “feel” rational and we are notoriously bad at appraising our thought processes.4

Integrating the mind

Moving away from the idea of “effective” rationality and “biased” intuition and towards understanding the functional characteristics of intuitive processes may provide a more fruitful way to an integrated understanding of the mind. No matter the mental process we are choosing to rely on, its efficiency will be determined by individual factors as well as the context they are being used for.

What follows is that rather than falling prey to the divisive good-vs-evil fallacy (i.e. reason vs. intuition), we should be looking at the training ground we are providing all of our cognitive processes. Our intuitive processing, just like any other cognitive process, is only as good as the exposure and experience we provide it with.

So how does one go about training intuition? My suggestion, which builds on the recommendations provided by Sadler-Smith and colleagues, is a three fold approach:

  1. Build intuitive awareness & ability: get to know the intuitive mind & benchmark its reliability within your context(s)

  2. Develop interoceptive awareness: acquire the skills to use the somatic feedback from your body for intuitive decision-making

  3. Calibrate intuition: create conditions under which intuitions can be captured before they are censored by the analytical mind, through contemplative and meditative techniques

The bottom line

We are confronted with global issues of a magnitude which we are unable to grasp mentally and emotionally, such as climate change and the inevitable socio-political repercussions of it.

Considering this situation, it is my belief that we simply cannot afford to leave the intelligence of our intuition unused anymore. Is it not time to harness all tools available to us, in order to find solutions to these pressing issues of our time? We are going to need all of our creativity and innovation to be able to thrive in this so-called VUCA world. The way to get there includes intuition!

Where do we go from here?

This one article that I set out to write, has turned into an article series. Upcoming topics include:

  • What kind of feelings are “gut feelings”?

  • The big ‘no-no’: emotions in decision-making

  • Why we need intuition for creativity

  • How to calibrate intuition

  • Recommendations for developing intuitive awareness

  • The story retold: heuristics & biases

Is there a particular question or topic you would like me to address? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email!

1 VUCA is a term coined by the U.S. Army War College, which in recent years has been adopted in a business environment to refer to the state of the world today. It’s short for: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

2 To this date, there is not one single, agreed upon definition of intuition within the research community. The characterization by Tillman Betsch mentioned here, is one I have found useful throughout my research. For the sake of completeness, let me add that I follow other researchers in devoting my time more towards understanding how intuition functions in judgment and decision-making, rather than grappling with the philosophical discourse on its definition (though I have contributed to this discussion in the past).

3 Sadler-Smith (2015) ‘The role of intuition in entrepreneurship and business venturing decisions'

4 Something I have written about elsewhere :