Harnessing Hunches — How to Turn Intuition into Innovation

DetectivePhoto by João Silas via Unsplash

“As great designers and inventors often do, [Henry] Ford relied on his instincts to tell him that there was a need for something that didn’t exist. At Apple, Steve Jobs and his ace designer, Jonathan Ive, have done likewise in a number of instances. But for business in general, relying entirely on the instincts of a lone genius can be too limiting. Mindful of this, many designers have come to believe that successful design in the business world (and elsewhere, too) is achieved through a marriage of designer’s intuition and a deep investigation into people’s lives and needs – with emphasis on deep.”

– Warren Berger, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People

TV, cinema, and literature are rife with detective stories. All of these stories have one thing in common. At some point during the story, the detective gets a feeling in their gut — a hunch. And despite some hand-wringing from the other characters, the detective invariably ends up following their hunch. And lo and behold, their hunch leads them straight to what they were looking for. As members of the audience, we don’t fault our detectives for doing this. We don’t think they’re crazy for listening to the voices in their head. But we also don’t think they have some kind of magical superpower to discover the truth. Far from it. Detectives are portrayed as wickedly smart, serious people. We realize that their hunch is a product of their unconscious mind acting on years of experience, picking up a thread no one else has seen yet.

Believe it or not, this Detective mindset is exactly what we need to embrace as innovators. No, we’re not suggesting you tote around cigars, solving mysteries like Columbo. Embracing the mindset of a Detective means not only listening to your hunches but actually following them through to their logical conclusion. Detectives don’t treat a gut feeling as enough to accuse a would-be criminal; they use their gut to point themselves in the right direction, but then they meticulously collect facts, building their case before they come to any kind of firm conclusion. Innovators must embrace this duality as well — listening to their intuition, but only coming to conclusions based on investigation and explicit logic.

Brain Systems

This internal pull between what you explicitly know and what you feel in your gut is something that’s inherent to all of us. It’s how our brains work. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls this phenomenon System 1 and System 2. System 1 is your automatic system, the hunch part of your brain, the gut feeling (even though it’s obviously not coming from your gut at all). System 2 is your manual system, your inner monologue, your deep thinking, your conscious self.

The funny thing is, even though we’re hardly ever aware of the automatic system (because it’s unconscious), in actuality, it’s what drives most of our actions — from the very basics like breathing to more complex actions like your daily commute. Now, this seems a little scary. Our conscious self isn’t in control of what we do the vast majority of the time. But is it really that bad? We don’t constantly trip over ourselves or just randomly forget to breathe. In fact, our automatic system does a pretty good job at most — not all, but most — things. That’s because it’s actually the older system in our brains. It’s had many more millennia to hone its abilities before our conscious manual system developed. Designers with a detective mindset, though, practice leveraging the power that both brain systems have to offer.

The Value of a Good Hunch

Hunches, glimmers, inklings. You hear prominent innovators throw around these terms all the time. And they’re an essential part of the creative process. They’re the forerunners to ingenious insights and creative breakthroughs.

Casting a NetPhoto by Fredrik Ohlander via Unsplash

Hunches come when your brain combines something you already know with something you’ve just observed. This new bit of information gets caught in a net of your areas of expertise. When your automatic system finds an interesting connection, it does everything it can to get your attention. Unfortunately, your automatic system is nonverbal, so it jumps up and down. It waves its arms. And eventually your manual system starts to take notice, but it’s not exactly sure just what the automatic system is going on about — just that there’s something interesting going on.

Research has proven the power of hunches. Roderick Gilkey, professor at Emory, used neuroimaging to show that when executives make strategic decisions, they don’t just access their manual system. The regions of the brain where our automatic system resides are also actively at work. These strategic thinkers are paying attention to both what they explicitly know to be true and what their hunches might be telling them. This isn’t just effective for executives. The same is true of the firefighter that Malcolm Gladwell profiled in his bestseller, Blink, who, in the middle of a burning building, suddenly felt a hunch. Something was wrong; he just didn’t know what. Because he had trained himself to pay attention to his hunches, he didn’t hesitate. He immediately called for his team to evacuate the building. Minutes after everyone was out of the build, its floor collapsed. His hunch saved not only his life but the lives of his entire team as well. Now, of course, most of our jobs aren’t life and death, but the point is the same. There’s extremely valuable information residing in our hunches. We can’t afford to pass them up.

Making Sense of It All

To leverage the power of our hunches, we need to learn to decipher them. Deciphering hunches is a skill, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. We’re not gonna lie. This can be tough. You’re essentially trying to get your manual system to understand what the heck your automatic system is trying to tell it. Not only do they not speak the same language, but one of them doesn’t speak at all. But the job’s not impossible. In fact, for those of you that are dog owners, like us, you’ll find that you already have a lot of experience figuring out what a nonverbal friend is trying to tell you. You see, as dog owners, you generally know when your dog needs to go out, is hungry, wants to play, or would like to be petted. And all of this understanding happens without any words. How do dogs express these desire to us? They actively work to direct our attention. Whether it’s tapping on the back door, clanging an empty food bowl, or dropping a ball in our laps, they work to get our focus right on the thing they want. Of course, if we’re not paying attention, their efforts are in vain. But if we play along, if we work to put two and two together, we can deduce that the dropped ball in our lap means that they’d like to play.

Dog CommunicationPhoto by Isaac Moore via Unsplash

They key to getting your brain systems to communicate is to find common ground. Spatial reasoning is actually an area that both of your brain’s systems understand pretty well. So, if you want your manual system to understand what your automatic system is trying to say, you need to translate your manual system’s verbal understanding of your problem into a spatial understanding. So how do you turn a verbal understanding into something dimensional? With a diagram, of course! We love diagrams, and if your goal is to become great at innovation, then they’ll quickly become your best friend too. Diagramming allows you to represent the concepts you’re dealing with and use space to represent the relationships between them.

There are two main ways you can use diagrams to gain an understanding. The first is through categories. Group similar things together. You may notice that one of your groups is not like that others, or you might find a new connection between things that you didn’t realize were actually related.

The second way you can use diagrams is to represent flow. Nearly every design will be experienced by your users in some sort of sequence. Plotting out that flow can quickly elucidate gaps in your experience, unexpected turns, or overwhelming sequences. Part of you knew all along there was something there, but you really just needed to see it all laid out before you totally understood your hunch.

Data visualization, believe it or not, is the epitomal skill of an innovator harnessing their Detective mindset. Data is, after all, all about facts, and as we said earlier, true detectives build up their case with facts. But spreadsheets alone don’t solve anything (and honestly Columbo going over a spreadsheet would make for a very boring episode). Data visualization, though, transcends a spreadsheet. When done right, it elevates the raw data into an easy-to-understand story. From Sherlock Holmes to Colombo to Adrian Monk, that’s how all great detective tales end — with the detective telling the story, from beginning to end, of what really happened.

The Detective Mindset

Our brains are complicated. Often, they’re more powerful than we know. But with training, we can develop the mindset of a Detective and truly unlock the potential of our intuition. Hunches are used everyday by everyone from top executives to local firefighters to make strategic and sometimes even life-saving decisions. Once we’ve found a worthwhile hunch, it’s up to us to make sense of it. By visualizing the problem we’re working on, we can create spaces for the intuitive part of our brain to draw our attention to and ultimately uncover the insight that was lurking just below the surface. Through these insights, we can take our designs to the next level and ensure the success of what we’re creating.

Published by Ben Haefele

Product Designer. Innovator. Aspiring Ping-Pong Master.

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