Innovation: Should You Trust Your Gut?

21 Oct

(Originally posted on The Innovation Workgroup’s LinkedIn page, 22nd September, 2015)

Innovators seem to lean toward one of two schools of thought, the creativity school and the science school. What can these schools of thought teach us? How important are the lessons of each school for success in innovation?

The advocates of creativity stress that original ideas come unbidden to the minds of creative individuals. They point to successful contrarians, such as Steve Jobs, who had great faith in their own intuition and were later proved right.

The proponents of science look at innovation as a process where assumptions and ideas are challenged, tested and validated. Hard data—not gut feelings—are the gold standard for these innovators.

Creativity or Science?

During a recent innovation project, a marketing manager combined both of these schools of thought in an unusual way. She said that she had been a big advocate of one of our inventions, but after prototyping and testing it, she was convinced that the solution was not effective and would not work.

This sounded like a logical progression. Her gut made her optimistic at first that the prototype would work, but the experimental data did not support her earlier feeling, so she changed her mind. However, when I probed further, I learned that something else was at work. The marketing manager’s change of mind was really a change of heart.

It turns out that the experiment was not well-designed, and the results were not tracked in order to apply statistical tests. The marketing manager, who had trusted her gut at the beginning, was still trusting her gut – her general impressions and intuition – rather than the data. She was ready to abandon a promising solution without giving it a fair, scientific test.

The fourth principle of successful innovation that I teach is, “Informed innovation produces the best results.” I devote a lot of effort to persuading our clients to innovate based on information: facts and insights. I argue that innovation based on hunches, guesses and assumptions—on gut instinct—is bound to fail far more often than it succeeds.

Before you get too angry or upset, kindly note I acknowledge, appreciate and support the proper use of feelings, intuition and creativity in the innovation process. Innovation is an inherently uncertain process. No one can predict the future with complete accuracy to see which innovations will succeed. Judgment and heartfelt confidence—even deep convictions that go against the prevailing wisdom—are sometimes required to propose and promote innovative ideas.

The thing that troubles me is that so many managers, even at the top levels of our large corporations, make many of their decisions according to their guts instead of using and relying upon the scientific method to obtain data to validate their feelings before making a decision.

As much as possible, we want our clients to become innovation scientists. It’s fine to develop hypotheses using their intuition. Then, the right thing to do is to design experiments to test and validate those hypotheses. When the experiments reveal some problems with the hypothesis, the innovator is in a position to change course or to abandon the exercise before it becomes very costly. When the experimental data confirm the hypothesis, the innovator can move ahead with confidence.

What do you think? Do you trust intuition and creativity above all? Do you insist on testing and analysis at every stage? What is the right balance between the two schools of thought? Please post your comments below.

Additional reading on this topic: The art and science of innovation

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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


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