Intuition: How to Develop Great Ideas at Work

New ideas are based on bits of information

Have you ever wondered how some people come up with great ideas?

Inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla is said to have had incredibly powerful intuition, which led him to establish 700 patents worldwide for inventions he created. Tesla said:

“My brain is only a receiver, in the universe, there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

It is not just scientists and business leaders who can tap into the power of intuition. People at all levels can benefit from understanding intuition and how it can be applied at work. But first, it is important to understand what intuition is.

Types of intuition
Our brains naturally use a combination of logic and emotion when making decisions. Our capacity to feel and know things without conscious reasoning is intuition. Brain science recognizes that we use ordinary intuition frequently—recognizing a gut feeling to not go down a dark alley for example. Expert intuition involves being able to make snap judgments, when something feels right or is already known to you from past experience, like what restaurant to make a lunch appointment for a particular business client. Strategic intuition involves flashes of insight that may help solve a complex problem.

Intuition can be wrong
Humans can fool themselves into making intuitive errors. “It’s shocking how vulnerable we are to forming false memories, misjudging reality and mispredicting our own behavior,” writes David G. Myers in Psychology Today. “Coaches, athletes, investors, interviewers, gamblers and psychics fall prey to well-documented illusory institutions.”

But there is vast power in intuition, if one can avoid the perils, then we are just scratching the surface of understanding. Today’s cognitive science research is revealing a fascinating unconscious mind. Much of our thinking occurs, well, without us thinking about it.

Ever heard the term “I’ll sleep on it” when considering an important decision? Often, we think through an issue, using logic and “what if” scenarios. But it is after we stop conscious thought that our hidden brain power sorts through the issue. That is why a direction will become clear after we sleep on it. Thinking, memory and attitude operate on two levels: the conscious/deliberate and the unconscious/automatic. This is what researchers call “Dual processing.”

Intuition on the job
Using intuitive skills can help with problem solving when working as a member of a team. Some people tune into needs and feedback from a boss or other team members instinctively. For others, it takes a bit of practice. Here are some tips to anticipate needs more easily.

Apply reasoning. Think about past interactions and they type of concerns and questions usually asked. Think about how problems are usually resolved and look for a pattern.

Understand personal style. Getting to know the personal preferences of a manager or team members will help anticipate their needs. Do they make decisions quickly or deliberately? Are they planners or rush to complete projects at the last minute?

Recognize business cycles. Most businesses have busy and slow periods and other activities that affect work flow. If you know a project is launching the same week as the team is expected to work on the company annual report, you can plan ahead more effectively.

Applying these skills, anticipating needs will come more intuitively. Just don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions. Anticipation is based on objectively analyzing a given situation using facts and reasoning.

Don’t overthink it
A study from University College in London found that performance improves when people go with their gut instinct and avoid overthinking situations. Gut instinct also allows for quicker decision making, which is especially crucial in fast paced situations where deadlines are short.

For some, trusting their gut is not easy. Here a few ways to learn to lean into instincts:

Research. You likely will be aware of new product or service the company will be working on long before crunch time. Know the facts about a subject to draw upon knowledge when it comes time for quick decisions.

Even quick decisions have options. In the heat of the battle, take a moment to pause and consider options. Evaluate risks, costs versus benefits and whether your decision will be supported.

Read between the lines. If your boss reminds you AGAIN about a deadline, that probably means they want a status update, and reassurance you will be finished before the deadline.

Take the action. Once a decision is made, don’t freeze. Commit to a direction and follow through.

No one can anticipate every possible outcome, but at some point, you must move forward.

Applying strategic intuition
Breakthrough ideas are not based on entirely new information, but rather bits of information that already exists, reformulated in a different way. It can also be a logical progression of ideas (what if this telephone didn’t have a cord?).

New inventions also happen by accident. Scientists are trying to solve a problem, and come up with a solution for a totally different problem. Oral minoxidil was originally used for treating high blood pressure, but patients and health care providers noticed that hair growth was a side effect of treatment. This led to the development of topical (solution applied to the skin) minoxidil for the treatment of male-pattern baldness.

In the book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, author William Duggan explains that strategic intuition is about combining creativity and rational thinking into idea formulation.

Try this exercise to release strategic intuition:

You’ve already well thought through the problem at hand, gathered the research and put all of the knowledge on the library shelves of your brain while at work. But flashes of insight might not happen at work. People get great ideas in the shower, as they first wake up in the morning or sitting alone in the woods. These are times when we might allow our mind to wander.

This is the time to free your brain of all the preconceived notions about the problem you’re solving and what solutions might work. Just let it go. Think of the elements of the problem as pieces of a puzzle. Examine them without trying to solve the puzzle. Then let everything go, and move on to something else. Let your subconscious take over for a while and work on the information you have given it. You may be surprised with new ideas once your conscious brain reconnects with the problem.

It takes combining instinct with knowledge and trusting your gut to awaken, facilitate, and apply your intuitive capacities for problem solving and innovation at work. As Steve Jobs famously said:

“Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

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