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  • Thomas Thurston

Intuitive innovation – hurts so good

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Oh, that thing we call “intuition.” Some call it “common sense.” Others call it their “gut,” “hunch,” or “Spidey sense.”

Intuition is one of humanity’s most celebrated notions. It’s the essence of art. Intuition is even held out as a virtue. It’s a Hollywood cliché when data-types are ignored (or punched in the face) by intuitive, action-types who end up saving the day by scoffing at the facts because it’s all about guts. Damn the torpedoes. Never tell me the odds. Intuition is why Kirk is boss and Spock will never really be more than #2. If you say anything bad about intuition you should expect some angry emails.

We know this. We feel this. Yet we also know our intuitions are pretty unreliable a lot of the time. Our feelings are just that, feelings. Feelings can be wrong, even when they feel right. Psychologists call this “cognitive bias” and there’s a ton of great work on how intuition can lead us astray. To name a just few recent books on this topic:

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow

  2. Predictably Irrational

  3. Sway

  4. Think Twice

  5. Why We Make Mistakes

  6. Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

  7. Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business

  8. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not

  9. Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us

  10. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

So… on the one hand we know our intuitions can be dead wrong a lot of the time, but on the other hand we can feel compelled to defend our intuitions to the bitter ends. Intuition is going strong. Even in a time of more data than ever, here’s how the word “intuition” has been trending in literature since 1800:

The word “invention” had its heyday, but now it’s all about “innovation.” Which word feels better to you? Try saying them both to yourself. Invention. Innovation.

Invention seems so-so. Not bad, but kind of dry and uninspired. It’s as if any moron can “invent” something. Innovation, on the other hand, feels uplifting and adventurous. It makes you feel you’re changing the world – even if you’re making videogames about throwing birds at pigs. Take a gander at how invention and innovation have trended:

invention vs innovation trend

Meanwhile around 70% – 80% of new innovations fail within their first 10 years. The sad empirical truth about intuitive innovation is – it hasn’t been working very well. We all know this at some level, but we still don’t want to change. We’re intuition addicts. We know Spock is right, but it’s more fun to follow Kirk into the asteroid belt.

A lot of fields have migrated away from intuition towards more scientific disciplines, and they’re better for it. Kind of a buzzkill, but this process has solved many of humanity’s toughest riddles. For example, medicine used to be almost entirely art (you’ve been cursed by an evil troll) and has now become more scientific (your blood-work stats say you have an 86% chance of infection). The same is true for engineering and the physical sciences. Why not innovation?

Some people have a tough time with this idea because it isn’t clear where to start.

Sure, we’d all like innovation to be more scientific, at least in principle, but what would that even look like?  More stage-gates and milestones followed by lean startup business model canvassing that’s disruptive and crosses the chasm in an accelerator?  Those things could be fine, but that isn’t what I mean. Rather, making innovation more scientific begins with asking different kinds of questions and a willingness to start measuring stuff.  For example, I really enjoyed Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. It feels right. However a more scientific approach would go something like this:

  1. Is there a testable hypothesis in the book?

  2. Has that hypothesis been, in fact, tested in a predictive manner?

  3. If so, what percentage of the time is the hypothesis correct? How often, and in what circumstances, is it incorrect?

  4. Is there any statistical significance in its predictions or are they statistically random?

  5. What was the sample size? Was it big enough to create meaningful statistical confidence?

See the difference? Dry as it may seem, this is pretty important stuff to know before you risk everything using pointers from a bestselling innovation book.  Maybe the book’s advice is sound, maybe it isn’t. Doesn’t it bother you that you don’t really know? Think about – literally – every strategy or innovation theory you’ve ever bought into. Ever seen relatively basic scientific questions like these asked and answered?  I didn’t think so. If you think it’s in there, check again. With the billions (or trillions) spent on innovation, innovation books, innovation consulting and innovation theory each year, doesn’t the world deserve better? With all the lives, businesses and communities at stake, stop taking people’s word for it (even if they have amazing resumes) and stop following ideas just because they feel good. Demand better science.

Please consider this the next time you’re thinking about blue oceans, level 5 leadership, innovating close to the core, practicing judo strategy, design-driven innovation, business model innovation, going with your core competence, visionary leadership, first-mover advantage, fast-follower advantage, razor/razor-blade strategy, bottoms up innovation, tops down innovation, team-centric innovation, lead-user innovation, or whatever else you’re pondering.

The point isn’t to say innovation should only be about either science or art. They aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s room for both. I’ll say it again – both art and science have their places in innovation. Of course it’s a balancing act.  Yet with a 70% – 80% mortality rates for new businesses, it’s time to slide innovation a few ticks further in the direction of science. It isn’t time for wholesale abandonment of intuition, but for some deliberate recalibration. Too much intuition is hurting innovation, even while it feels so good.


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