Intuition & Innovation in the Age of Uncertainty

“My [trading] decisions are really made using a combination of theory and instinct. If you like, you may call it intuition.” – George Soros

“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

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.” – Albert Einstein

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” – Steve Jobs

Have you ever considered why it is that you decide some of the things that you do? Like how to divide your time across the multiple projects or activities that you have at work, how and when to discipline your kids, where to go and what to do on vacation, which car to buy?

The ridiculously slow way to figure these things out is to do an exhaustive analysis on all of the options, potential outcomes and probabilities. This can be extremely difficult when the parameters of the analysis are constantly changing, as is often the case. Such analysis is making use of your conscious mind.

The other option is to use your subconscious mind and make a quick intuitive decision.


We who have been educated in the West, and especially those of us who received our training in engineering or the sciences, are conditioned to believe that “analysis” represents rigorous logical scientific thinking and “intuition” represents new-age claptrap. Analysis good, intuition silly.

This view is quite inaccurate.

Intuition Leads to Quick, Accurate Decisions

According to Gary Klein, ex-Marine, psychologist, and author of the book “The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work,” 90% of the critical decisions that we make are made by intuition in any case. Intuition can actually be a far more accurate and certainly faster way to make an important decision. Here’s why…

The mind is often considered to be composed of two parts – conscious and subconscious. Admittedly, this division may be somewhat arbitrary, but it is also realistic.

The conscious mind is that part of the mind that deals with your current awareness (sensations, perceptions, feelings, fantasies, memories, etc.) Research shows that the information processing rate of the conscious mind is actually very low. Dr. Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia estimates, in his book “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious,” the conscious mind’s processing capacity to be only 40 bits per second. Tor Nørretranders, author of “The User Illusion”, estimates the rate to be even lower at only 16 bits per second. In terms of the number of items that can be retained at one time by the conscious mind, estimates vary from 4 – 7, with the lower number being reported in a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences.

Contrast that with the subconscious mind, which is responsible for all sorts of things: autonomous functions, subliminal perceptions (all of that data streaming in to your five sensory interfaces that you barely notice), implicit thought, implicit learning, automatic skills, association, implicit memory, and automatic processing. Much of this can be combined into what we consider “intuition.” Estimates for the information processing capacity and storage capacity of the subconscious mind vary widely, but they are all orders of magnitude larger than their conscious counterparts. Dr. Bruce Lipton, in “The Biology of Belief,” notes that the processing rate is at least 20 Mbits/sec and maybe as high as 400 Gbits/sec. Estimates for storage capacity are as high as 2.5 petabytes.

Isn’t it interesting that the rigorous analysis that we are so proud of is effectively done on a processing system that is excruciatingly slow and has little memory capacity? Whereas, intuition is effectively done on a processing system that is blazingly fast and contains an unimaginable amount of data.

In fact, that’s what intuition is – the same analysis that you might consider doing consciously, but doing it instead with access to far more data, such as your entire wealth of experience, and the entire set of knowledge to which you have ever been exposed.

Innovation Is Fueled by Intuition

The importance of intuition only grows exponentially with every year that passes.  Here’s why…

Eddie Obeng is the Professor at the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, HenleyBusinessSchool, in the UK. He gave a TED talk which nicely captured the essence of our times, in terms of information overload. Figure 1 from that talk demonstrates what we all know and feel is happening to us:

Innovation & Uncertainty from Eddie Obeng

The horizontal axis is time, with “now” being all the way to the right. The vertical axis depicts information rate.

The green curve represents the rate at which we humans can absorb information, aka “learn.” It doesn’t change much over time because our biology stays pretty much the same. The red curve represents the rate at which information is coming at us.

Clearly, there was a time in the past, where we had the luxury of being able to take the necessary time to absorb all of the information necessary to understand the task, or project at hand. If you are over 40, you probably remember working in such an environment.

At some point, however, the incoming data rate exceeded our capacity to absorb it; television news broadcasts with two or three rolling tickers, tabloids, zillions of web sites to scan, Facebook posts, tweets, texts, blogs, social networks, information repositories, big data, etc. In our work place, projects typically have many dependencies on information from other teams, stakeholders, technologies, end users, and leadership, all of which are constantly changing.

It is easy to see that as time goes on, the ratio of unprocessed incoming information to human learning capacity grows exponentially. What this means is that there is increasingly more uncertainty in our world, because we just don’t have the ability to absorb the information needed to be “certain,” like we used to. Some call it “The Age of Uncertainty.” Some refer to the need to be “comfortable with ambiguity.”

This is a true paradigm shift. It demands entirely new ways of doing business, of structuring companies, of planning, of living. In my job, I help companies come to terms with these changes by implementing agile and lean processes, structures, and frameworks in order for them to be more adaptable to the constantly changing environment. Such processes are well suited for the organizational context in any case given that organizations are complex systems (as opposed to “complicated” ones, in Cynefin, or systems theory, parlance). But they are also the only kinds of processes that will be effective in this new environment because they embrace the idea of sensing and responding to change instead of requiring rigorous analysis to establish a predictable plan.

We no longer have time to do the rigorous analysis necessary to make the multitude of decisions with which we are confronted on a daily basis. Instead, we increasingly need to rely on our intuition. But, while we often concentrate our energies on improving specific technical or leadership skills, we rarely consider the idea that perhaps we can make better use of that powerful subconscious mind apparatus by improving the effectiveness of our intuition. It seems to me that this is a significantly missed opportunity, one that deserves more and more of our attention with every passing year.

Intuition Can Be Developed

Sounds as if intuition is a skill that could be very useful to hone, if possible. So how do we develop that capability?  Here are some ideas:

  • Have positive intent and an open mind – The first step to any new idea is to accept it. Think of it as “greasing the learning skids.”
  • Put yourself in situations where you gain more experience about the desired subject(s) – Intuition works best when you have a lot of experiences from which to draw. If you continue to do the same thing over and over, you are not building new experiences.  Therefore, the more you depart from the norm and from your comfort zone, and develop experiences in your area of interest, the more substantial your “intuitive database.”
  • Meditate / develop point-focus – Meditation develops all sorts of interesting personal capabilities, not least of which is an improved capacity to intuit.
  • Go with first thing that comes to mind – Effectively, you are practicing intuition by doing this. In time, the practice will lead to more effective use of the capability.
  • Notice impressions, connections, coincidences (a journal or buddy may help) – This reinforces the intuitive pathways of the mind. Neuroplasticity is a well-studied phenomenon whereby your thoughts develop incremental neural connections. Reinforcing the positive ones makes them more available for use.
  • 2-column exercises – Another mindfulness technique, these exercises help to raise you awareness of your mental processes, including your subconscious.
  • Visualize success – Think of this as applying the idea of neuroplasticity to build a set of success-oriented neural pathways in your mind.
  • Follow your path – Following a path that feels right to you does two things: First, it puts you into increasingly rewarding situations, generating positive feedback, which helps with all of the above practices. Second, it is simply practicing intuition, but specifically on what your subconscious mind knows are your best decisions.

I am doing many of these practices and finding them to be very valuable.