Unleash the power of intuition
To drive sustainable business growth you need both, a data driven mindset combined with intelligently honed intuition.
I’ve been active as a growth marketer for over 11 years. It’s fair to say that during that time, I’ve acquired more than a few stories to tell. What more could you ask for from your work?
It’s a dynamic and sometimes crazy environment. Innovation is rife, and that’s what makes this career so compelling. Some trends excite me, and some worry me. Indeed, some trends have actually achieved both effects. Data-led marketing is a good example. Initially it excited me. These days, it worries me.
Let me yelp an immediate caveat: I agree that data is useful and good. We can attribute sales to specific activities or initiatives. We can track user engagement in an app. We can determine which hours of the day to show or hide an ad. We can iteratively test buttons, text, and layouts. We can optimise.
This is a new world. It’s a world driven by attribution, measurement, and optimising for marginal gains. A career in data science is not only feasible - but positively lucrative. This is all good.
But what have we sacrificed in the name of data?...
I believe we must reclaim and unleash the power of intuition to maximise business growth. Let me explain how and why...
Five important concepts and approaches as I see and understand:
Deliberative thinking: To deliberate. The process of deliberation. To prepare for deliberate action. Considered, weighted, and measured. Slow, controlled, and full of effort.
Analytical thinking: To work systematically and logically to solve a problem. The process of collecting data, extracting key information, and testing solutions iteratively.
Sequential thinking: Aka, linear thinking. To process information in an orderly manner. Pertaining to a step-by-step methodology. Wait for a result, take the next appropriate step.
Intuitive thinking: To understand or know something without direct visible evidence. It is an awareness of something outside conscious algorithmic behaviour and thought processes. Note: Some people use instinct and intuition interchangeably, but in fact they are distinct. As this thread shows, “intuition is currently understood to be the subliminal processing of information that is too complex for rational thought, e.g. mate choice. The processes that make up intuition are learned, not innate. Instinct is not a feeling, but an innate, "hardwired" tendency toward a particular behaviour.”
Holistic thinking: Aka, non-linear thinking. To see the bigger picture and appreciate how everything is interconnected within a broad landscape. Shifting the mind onto different angles, and searching for the non-sequential patterns.
Intuition’s bad reputation
Analytical thinking has been championed over recent decades, particularly in western societies. This has led to intuitive thinking getting a bad name. We’re accustomed to rational deliberative decision-making.
Cartoon by Scott Adams.
I’ll list some of the common criticisms of intuition that I’ve come across in businesses as a growth marketer:
Intuition is untrustworthy: The brain is an imperfect processor. Cognitive bias is real, and it operates at a subconscious level. We provide more weight to something that supports our assumptions prejudices and we are influenced by distorted memories, inaccurate first impressions, and more.
Intuition is romanticised: You need to be a special, magical, and superior person to use intuition. Intuition is falsely held up in as an intangible character trait, unmeasurable, and unknowable. Intuition is unattainable. Pure wizardry.
Intuition is irrational (or non-rational): Subconscious judgement can be highly influenced by emotion. For this reason, it intuition has been labelled as inherently irrational. This renders intuition useless as a tool for smart decision-making.
Intuition is lazy: For those who can’t handle data, intuition is considered the perfect safety net. But is this an excuse for not bothering to learn how to interpret numbers? Are intuitive thinkers lazy luddites?
These criticisms are not without foundation. There are indeed limitations to intuition. As I’ll discuss later, some people can call on their intuition in better ways than others. And some situations are better-suited to an intuitive approach than others. Pure unadulterated intuition isn’t usually the best approach.
We’re sorely lacking in nuance these days, and it’s tempting to fall into one fanatic camp or the other. In my mind, we should be striving for synergy. A dash of this, and a dash of that. In truth, this is essential for any business with ambitions of global expansion; integrating intuition with analytical thinking.
With this in mind, what are the experts saying about intuition? Is the bad reputation deserved?
The reality of intuition
We have a wealth of science that supports the relevance of intuition. How ironic! In a nutshell, many psychologists argue that intuition isn’t an irrational nuisance; it can be beneficial for decision-making.
Valerie van Mulukom outlines this beautifully in her article for The Conversation:
“Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties. They are appraisals of what you have just experienced or thought of – in this sense, they are also a form of information processing. Intuition or gut feelings are also the result of a lot of processing that happens in the brain. Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next. This is described in what scientists call the “predictive processing framework”...
This ensures that the brain is always as prepared to deal with the current situation as optimally as possible. When a mismatch occurs (something that wasn’t predicted), your brain updates its cognitive models.”
Looking at the critiques listed above, what can we offer in response?
Intuition is untrustworthy: Intuition can be untrustworthy, (just like data!) but it isn’t inherently untrustworthy. Intuition is shaped by genuine past experiences and can be considered a web of fact and feeling.
Intuition is romanticised: This is a symptom of our lack of nuance in this discussion. We all have intuition. Some people can apply it better than others, and some people choose to apply it more regularly in decisions. Our life experiences shape us, but decision-makers who use intuition are not magic wizards with clairvoyant visions.
Intuition is irrational (or non-rational): Valerie van Mulukom’s assessment above is echoed elsewhere. As Sharon Bailin argues in her 1991 report (note: download) on rationality and intuition: “There are not two distinctive and opposite kinds of processes of thinking, one kind irrational and leading to creative achievement and the other kind rational and involved in the evaluation of ideas or products. Rather, there are analytic, highly judgmental aspects to generating creative results and imaginative, inventive aspects to logic and reasoning and it is exceedingly difficult to separate two distinct and opposite kinds of thought... An underlying reason for this opposition between creativity and rationality is the view that reasoning always takes place within rigidly bounded and highly rule-governed frameworks. This view of how frameworks operate is radically defective, however, because frameworks are less definite and more fluid than this view would suggest.” This report also argues that part of the problem is that we frame intuition as irrational, and therefore all intuitive decisions are therefore irrational and problematic. However, emotional decision-making is not the same as intuition. In practice, it is hard to make the distinction between an emotional decision and an intuitive decision: am I scared, or do I have a bad feeling? Am I too excited, or confident of success? If you can make this distinction, you needn’t be worried about irrationality.
Intuition is lazy: Relying on intuition can indeed be a lazy excuse. But I’m not talking about using intuition flippantly, with no regard for the benefits of data. Intuition must be used knowingly; and we should work very hard to improve our use of intuition. Laziness is part of what has given intuition a bad name. Loose guesswork is lazy, especially when there is superior evidence available. Tapping into good intuition is a challenge. And trusting that intuition is a challenge in the face of widespread critiques and doubts. I would argue that people who take up this challenge are far from lazy.
Intuitive thinking in the world of business growth
My concern isn’t that deliberative, analytical, or sequential thinking exists. There are benefits to this approach that impact the business growth of my clients. My concern is that deliberative analytical thinking has become too prevalent.
With data pouring from our eyes and ears, we’ve become too focused on the WHAT, to ask the right questions about the WHY.
On a number of occasions, I’ve worked with clients whose startup has skyrocketed - only to be buffeted by slowed or plateauing growth. They will have pumped budget into effective acquisition channels, and tracked the return on investment accurately. When growth slows, linear thinking encourages the search for new, efficient, acquisition channels. Or new ways to utilise the current channels.
Unsurprisingly, these new channels and successful tactics are few-and-far-between when you’ve already picked the lowest-hanging fruit to achieve market traction. This search might quickly burn through cash and put the business in a precarious position. It’s a common phenomenon.
A more holistic and intuitive view might look more deeply into the product itself. Perhaps investing a lot of cash into new users is a waste, and instead you could look at user retention or increasing lifetime value (LTV) with higher-ticket purchases? Maybe it’s more effective to maximise conversions from your free to premium plans? Would investing your time, energy, and budget into conversion optimisation and customer journey be more impactful for growth?
The data will probably back this up, and indeed you should seek numerical evidence. But you need to be asking the right questions to get there in the first place. This needs intuition, derived from experience.
I’m very focused on this problem of asking the right questions...
I’ve been in meetings where investors are keen to generate more revenue and optimise marketing spend for the best returns. But my intuition tells me that the marketing team isn’t actually set up for success due to various reasons: perhaps the team structure isn’t relevant anymore, there’s a mismatch between capabilities and roles, or maybe we have the wrong agency partner or inefficient channel mix.
These are structural problems that can be spotted by asking the right questions.
I’ve also seen the obsession with optimising a marketing channel, when in fact the data and intuition combo shows that a product will be better-received in a different channel. Doubling down on the wrong channel is a sure-fire way to burn cash and damage team morale; two things that preempt failure.
The question is “how can we optimise Facebook platform for better performance?”, when it should be “is Facebook a good fit for our audience and what we’re selling? Have we reached diminishing returns based on our product-market-distribution fit?”
When testing new channels, experience-derived intuition goes a long way. I’ve seen too many startups enter the world of TV advertising in linear sequential mode. They treat TV as a conversion channel, with creatives that are crafted for brand awareness. Instead, I recommend optimising for response, recognising attributed and correlated results. Balance the short, medium, and long-term benefits to measure the total contribution of TV or any other ATL medium.
Adding a dash of intuition
I currently work in Berlin, Germany. Deliberative thinking is dominant in this culture; and it has had an effect. I also operate mainly in the digital and eCommerce product space. This attracts technologists, analysts, and data-led professionals in a huge variety of operational roles.
With these experiences in mind, it seems to me that we needn’t start from scratch. Let’s not banish the data-led marketers and call it a failed experiment. Let’s collaborate and complement each other. Add a dash of this... and a dash of that. Vary the ingredients and create a tastier recipe. Your business ambitions of global expansion will need this sort of integration to succeed.
When a marketing team has been built in an environment of analytical, sequential, and deliberative thinking - this will permeate the whole organisation and frame the way that people make decisions. The first step is to recognise this fact, and then it can be balanced out. We should aim to mix things up.
In a Management Today article written by John Morrish, Eugene Sadler-Smith (University of Surrey) talks about finding and managing this perfect balance:
“Some people are naturally more analytical, he says, and some are more intuitive. But it's best to combine both in decision-making: intuition followed by analysis, or vice versa. He recommends a 'traffic light system'. If intuition and analysis both say No, that's a red light. If they both say Yes, that's a green. If one says Yes and one says No, that's amber: proceed with caution. 'We have to recognise that if we make an intuitive decision, there's no guarantee of it being right. In the same way as with analysis; no one expects analysis to be right 100% of the time.’”
This is echoed by Francis Cholle in his piece for Psychology Today, where he argues that in order to make the best possible decisions for ourselves, our businesses, and our families - we need to pay attention to both instinct and reason. Understanding the value of this combination is essential.
Mike Fishbein at Invision writes about “overfitting” and “underfitting” in product design. The former is when complexities force you to focus on a specific data point too heavily, because there is never enough data volume at the outset of a project. This can cause problems in the future, especially when scaling or pivoting when new data becomes available. Underfitting is when you ignore informative data and make decisions on intuition alone. In this context, it usually involves dismissing data-based results because the sample is too small, and favouring another route. “Live by data, but don’t die by data” is the message.
How to improve intuitive thinking
"Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion." - Steve Jobs
I am not championing intuitive thinking at all costs. Bad intuitive thinking is equally as harmful as bad deliberative thinking. With this in mind, are there ways to improve your own ability to think intuitively?
One of the key tasks is to know when to trust your intuition.
McKinsey interviewed pioneering - and Nobel prize-winning - scientist, Daniel Kahneman, alongside Gary Klein. The headline question was about when (or whether) to trust your gut. Above all, the conclusion is that you must knowingly evaluate your gut instinct to see if it makes sense in the context of the problem.
Kahneman is a famous critic of intuition, and he says:
“There are some conditions where you have to trust your intuition. When you are under time pressure for a decision, you need to follow intuition. My general view, though, would be that you should not take your intuitions at face value. Overconfidence is a powerful source of illusions, primarily determined by the quality and coherence of the story that you can construct, not by its validity.”
Gary Klein offers a similarly cautious treatment of intuitions:
“There needs to be a certain structure to a situation, a certain predictability that allows you to have a basis for the intuition. If a situation is very, very turbulent, we say it has low validity, and there’s no basis for intuition. For example, you shouldn’t trust the judgments of stock brokers picking individual stocks. The second factor is whether decision makers have a chance to get feedback on their judgments, so that they can strengthen them and gain expertise. If those criteria aren’t met, then intuitions aren’t going to be trustworthy.”
“Most corporate decisions aren’t going to meet the test of high validity. But they’re going to be way above the low-validity situations that we worry about. Many business intuitions and expertise are going to be valuable; they are telling you something useful, and you want to take advantage of them.”
It’s also important to know when your intuition is bad. Broadly, this involves mistaking bias thinking for intuition. And as I’ve already mentioned, we need to pause and consider whether in fact we are making an emotional decision based on knee-jerk fear or excitement.
Art Markman sets out a useful step-by-step process for validating your intuitive thinking:
Ask yourself how the problem makes you feel
Evaluate how much you know about the topic
Gauge what is influencing your feelings
Judge if your head and your gut are aligned
When the subconscious is so prone to misconception, it’s important to acknowledge the things which could undermine the accuracy of your intuition. Pay attention, and understand the science of intuition. As an individual, this will help you apply it in the most reliable way. It will also help you ask the right questions when welcoming an intuitive thinker into your management team.
We are wired to see patterns. This has given us our evolutionary edge. Unleashing the power of our intuitive thinking capitalises on this talent. In a commercial world dominated by metrics, it pays to respect our experience, rather than dismissing these insights as irrational and unhelpful.
I’ll leave the final word to Valerie van Mulukom:
“It is time to stop the witch hunt on intuition, and see it for what it is: a fast, automatic, subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analysing can’t. We need to accept that intuitive and analytic thinking should occur together, and be weighed up against each other in difficult decision-making situations.”
Mehul Garg is an on-demand CMO and founder of Be Gargantuan, focused on strategic positioning, growth, and team-building. He is an intuitive leader, driving innovation to exceed business goals. His past gigs span from multinational corporates to global scale-ups to early stage startups. Notable clients include Canon Europe, eHarmony, Photobox, Touchnote, and 8Fit GmbH.