Informed Intuition: Take One Giant Step In

By: Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D., NPDP


New product development practitioners were interviewed about their thoughts on “informed intuition” and its role in their business. What follows is a compilation of their responses and my narrative thoughts on the matter.

What is intuition in New Product Development?

Joann Davis Brayman of Armstrong – “Intuition is the process of accumulating many bits and pieces of knowledge over time and incorporating them into current thinking. Knowledge base is the key in business. I call it informed intuition. It is not like the innate feel you have as, say ‘a new parent.’ Informed intuition builds over time on a base of success and failure.”

What is good about intuition?

Intuition will reduce cycle time, all for planning in unknown territory, increase team passion and promote concurrent process. Bill Duwe of T.D. Williamson suggested that intuition shortens the time it takes to come up with the answer. “If you have someone you trust who ‘just knows,’ you can put the analytic focus elsewhere in your project. Joann agrees and goes further to say that with the emphasis on improved cycle time an intuitive sense becomes absolutely critical. “We need to take longer intuitive leaps in order to get the job done.” Rob Samuelsen of NCR sees intuition as a key enabler of creativity. “Every new product effort is two parts hard information and two parts intuition.”

How could intuition get in the way?

Just as we saw intuition as essential for good NPD process, we had no problem coming up with a list of the problems associated with ‘going with the gut.’

  •  Intuition does not secure funding in the corporate environment.
  •  Novice intuition may be wrong.
  •  Experienced intuition may be based on the wrong experience.
  •  What about the dictator who knows, he knows?
  •  Intuition leaves you open to second guessing.
  •  It can be disastrous when exercised inappropriately by a person in a position of authority.
  •  You can be too intuitive and forget to check your work.
  •  There are risks associated with poor unfounded decision making.
  •  There are imprecise levels of expertise and therefore value of intuition.
  •  What do you do when you have a difference of intuitive sense or opinion?
  •  Intuition can leave you stuck in an existing paradigm.
  •  Intuition is person, not team.

Even here it is critical to understand the importance of intuition as a tool in deciding what your hypothesis is, what and how to conduct your research or analysis. As Rob points out, “Intuition is good when no hard data exist. It is not, however, a substitute for good data.”

What other key skills are there in NPD process? What relative importance does intuition play?

There was general agreement by those interviewed that intuition is balanced by the analytic skills despite a general response that they cannot by separated. Bill points out that as a manager he does not have time to do detailed analytic work any longer. He has to use his intuition to step back and “see the forest” and ask, “Does this complex analysis make sense?” Joann stresses that it is very difficult to do research on truly new things. “A truly unique idea will not be amiable to legitimate research.” In this situation research and the analysis of the results become feeders to judgment… but you will never get all the way to an answer by analysis alone.

How do you grow intuition?

We tend to squelch overt use of intuition in modern corporate society. Or as one manager pointed out, “You’re paid to produce not to learn.” It is hard to imagine any point of view that could be more damaging to intuition and creative effort. One definition is that creativity is the joining of what you already know with what you are now learning. Too often corporate culture does not foster independent thought. Those who can effectively use their intuitive abilities are going to succeed in a world where there is just not enough time or resource to do the ground work we would ordinarily like to have done.

Is intuition acceptable reasoning in your organization?

It depends on who you are. Apparently, if you want to sell an idea based on intuition it helps to be a Group VP or higher. The higher you go in the organization the more you are expected to fly by the seat of your pants. Rob called this “positive arrogance.” With a series of successes, and a proven track record the pressed senior manager is less likely to dig out the data or even distract his team by asking for more research and is likely to go forward based on a visceral reaction. There is generally a feeling that these gut reactions are as likely to lead to a positive business result as the more carefully considered data based decisions.

Bill points out that at his company, they will seek out the retired person with 30 or 40 years of related experience to get a judgment. This puts a heavy burden on the new team member to conform to current practices. This conformance often happens to the detriment of the diversity we hoped to acquire through the hiring process.

If building trust for informed intuition is important to the New Product Development professional, then we are cutting our future off at the knees. Rob suggests that this lack of trust in the intuition of those at a lower level or who are newer to the organization inevitably leads to a loss of creativity. It is a “Catch 22” you have to prove you can provide a positive contribution to the organization without the use of unsubstantiated creative insight before you are allowed to provide trusted unsubstantiated insight, which you no longer have capability or the desire to provide! Thus, we confirm the Peter principle as people move up in the organization and are expected to act on intuition.

What are your conclusions about intuition and its role in the NPD process?

Bill suggests that a mix of experience levels may be as important to the NPD team as the mix of expertise areas. Intuitive experts can be wrong. If you were to staff a new initiative with a team that had only raw theoretical knowledge they would probably have to go back to the basics and build the knowledge from scratch. On the other side, the team loaded with intuitive expertise would quickly fall into the old groove.

Joann suggests that becoming comfortable with our intuitive ability is more important to our future than to our past. We are being asked to perform the task of “business judgment” more and more quickly. Intuition and the confidence to express the intuitive insight in a business setting is critical to improve cycle times.

Intuition and creativity are the fuel for the New Product engine, suggests Rob. Without them we are on an incremental treadmill taking very small steps. The intuitive leap provides the creative insight. Analysis provides the rationalization needed to resolve the problem. We stifle innovation when we disregard intuition as a legitimate way of thinking.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Intuition is a critical component in the product development process and skill set of the product development professional. There is unanimity among those interviewed that intuition and “the right experience/knowledge” are strongly correlated. The psychologists among us point out that even with the requisite experience, only one in four will feel either comfortable or appropriate in exercising that experience without first exercising our preference for a careful review of the logical process.

If you’re interested in fostering intuition within New Product Development consider the following:

  1. To preserve cycle time make the intuitive leap but concurrently check your work. Run the risk of being wrong even after you have gone to the next step.
  2. Get comfortable with your bias. Encourage guessing and speculation about the outcome of research before the results are known. Write down your guesses.
  3. Become aware of Style and Type preferences from the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator among those on the NPD team. Encourage both the intuitives and the analytics to exercise their unique problem-solving gift and perspective to the benefit of the team.
  4. The use of intuition does not mean forgoing research. On the contrary it should complement good research efforts.
  5. Allow for mistakes. In them are the seeds of truly deep understanding.

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