Intuition or Data: Which Leads to Better Innovation Decisions?

Intuition or Data: Which Leads to Better Innovation Decisions?

“We need more data.”

How many times have you heard this?  How many times have you rolled your eyes (physically or mentally) and then patiently tried to explain that, when you’re doing something NEW, there is NO DATA.

There are analogous innovations, things that are similar in some ways that can be used as benchmarks, but nothing exactly like what you’re creating because nothing like it has existed before within your company.

As Innovators, we constantly balance our need for and comfort with gut decisions so we can move forward at speed with the broader organization’s need for data and certainty as a way to minimize risk.

But what role should intuition and data play in the early days of innovation?

This is exactly the question that my friend and former colleague, Nick Pineda, sought to answer in his thesis, “Are relevant experience and intuition drivers of success for innovation decision-makers?  An interview-based approach”


Robyn: Hi Nick!  Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.  The topic you explore in your thesis is fascinating and something every innovator struggles with.  I’m curious, what led you to decide to explore it?

Nick: Interestingly, the process of deciding what to write my thesis on actually inspired the topic itself.

For the capstone of my Masters program, we were told to do a consulting project but I had spent so many years in consulting that I wasn’t terribly excited about that prospect.  One day, as I was walking to work, I felt this feeling in my gut that said, “Nick, this is not why you’re in the Masters program.”  I shared this feeling with my professor and faculty advisor, and they were open to a different approach.

As we discussed what I could do, the same topic kept coming up – a lot of what is published about innovation, especially with Agile, is about measurement and that we need to have evidence before we take action.  I don’t disagree with that but viewing things only through that lens kills the wisp of an idea that has the potential of becoming something amazing.  Ultimately, we decided to focus my thesis on what happens on the front-end of the innovation process and whether intuition or evidence and data lead to success.


Robyn: And, what did you learn?

Nick: Two things, one that wasn’t surprising and one that was.

First, what wasn’t surprising is that innovation decision-makers have a really clear awareness about the role that gut feel or intuition, knowing without knowing how you know, play in their process.

Second, what was surprising, is that anyone who leans much more heavily in one direction versus another (data vs intuition), had many more failures, and struggled to process what they learned from those experiences and incorporate those learnings into future actions and decisions.  Successful innovators know how to create a dance between their rational processes and their intuitive processes.


Robyn: It seems so, well, intuitive that using both intuition and data to make decisions will lead to better outcomes.  However, so many innovators rely on intuition and so many companies require data, how can you encourage that “dance” that’s required for success?

Nick: You need to start small.

First with the person who’s innovating, to help them enter that inner space and recognize all the different ways that intuition can show up.   It can manifest as a sensory experience, a change in temperature, even a color.  It varies by person and by moment and the key is to recognize when it’s happening.

A simple way to create this awareness is to reflect on how you decide whether to trust someone.  Every time you meet someone new, you have to quickly decide whether or not to trust the person.  How do you do that?  What is the feeling or sense that you get that leads to your decision?  How often are you right?

Next, you need to create a language or process within the team to externalize the intuitive sense.  In my research, I found examples of visionary leaders who were constantly able to use their intuitive sense, but their teams were constantly felt left out and wondering why they did all the work when the leader was just going to decide on gut.  More successful teams were much more open about why, when, and how they were using their intuition, even specifically asking other team members to share their intuition in meetings.

Then, as leaders, we need to normalize the fact that we’re not always going to have precise evidence to know what the right call is and that we’re trusting what we’ve learned as leaders in this space to make a decision.


Robyn: That last point is really critical, leaders must role model the behavior they want to see and that includes using and communicating their intuition.  Anything else pop up with respect to leaders and decision-making?

Nick: Ideally, leaders will go beyond normalizing the use of intuition to actively working to dismantle the organization’s bias against it.

Most organizations consciously or subconsciously, defer to the highest paid person or the most credentialed person in the room when making decisions.  This is a highly rational behavior, but it doesn’t lead to the best decision.  The reason is that it overlooks the fact that diversity of experience surfaces other data points and intuitive experiences that need to be part of the conversation to get to a better decision.

Innovation is a group experience and when intuition is allowed to show up in groups a group intelligence starts to manifest and the group makes better decisions.


Robyn: That’s quite a To-Do list for leaders and decision-makers:

  1. Manage your personal dance between intuition and data
  2. Normalize intuition by creating a language around it
  3. Create ways to tap into diverse experiences and intuition

Thanks so much for sharing these great insights, Nick!

Nick: My pleasure.




To learn more about intuition and innovation, Nick recommends that you:



TAKE ACTION and Conduct an idea retrospective

    1. Anchor on an idea
      • Think back to a memorable innovation success or failure?
      • What was the idea?
      • Where did the initial idea come from?
      • If you had to pick 1-2 of the most important decisions you had to make in the process of bringing this idea to life, what were those decisions?
    2. Did you use intuition?
      • Intuition defined: Intuition is a process of rapidly recognizing things without knowing how we do the recognizing, which results in affectively charged (somatic, sensory, or emotional experience) judgements.
      • To what degree was your process intuitive?
      • To what degree were you aware of what your brain was doing to seek an answer / path forward?
    3. How did your intuition show up?
      • Signals / Cues: What signals or cues did you have about which course of action to take or not to take?
      • Knowing: How did the answer for which path forward to take “show-up” for you? Where were you? What did it feel like?
      • Feeling: What did you feel during this process?
    4. Apply More Broadly
      • In what ways is the way you explored your intuition in this case similar (or not) to other decisions you make in your life?
      • How might you be more intentional about how to bring your personal brand of intuition into your innovation process?
VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

Last week, I wrote about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a process of using art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills.

Typically, used in primary school classrooms, VTS has made its way into the corporate setting, helping individuals and teams to build and strengthen their problem solving and critical thinking skills, ability to communicate and collaborate, and effectiveness in delivering and receiving feedback.

While I did my best to capture the Why, What, and How of VTS in that post, there’s no substitute for learning from an expert.  That’s why I asked Suzi Hamill , former Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity and the woman who introduced me to VTS, to share her experience using the tool.


Hi Suzi.  Thanks for sharing your VTS wisdom and experience today.  I understand you’ve been doing a fair bit of VTS-ing lately.

Suzi: Yes!  Just a few months ago I was at Oxford University coaching 30 Chief Marketing Officers from large global corporations on how to apply Visual Thinking Strategies to their work and their teams.  And just last week, I led a session with a group of women on the West Coast of the US.

That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about VTS.  It was created to help people learn about art and was designed to be used in schools, but it can have such a powerful impact in a wide variety of businesses.

Suzi: Absolutely.  In a business context, there are massive systems and massive problems, and everyone has their own interpretation of what’s going on.  (imagine doctors deliberating over a diagnosis, investment analysts debating a company’s intrinsic value, retailers predicting the next fashion trend…) This creates conflict.  How do you pull together a range of people and ideas to forge the best path forward? VTS is a great, simple but rigorous method to help business groups look at big problems. VTS is a way to have open exploratory conversations with a diverse set of people

This is especially true in organizations that are very execution oriented. Often organizations haven’t developed the time, space or habit to work through ambiguity. VTS opens space for there to be ambiguity and dialogue.  It gives people permission to explore ideas, be wrong, and hear different points of view.

All of those behaviors are essential to making good business decisions.  I wonder, have you found that some people need “permission” more than others?

Suzi: I think everyone can benefit from the VTS experience and there are some circumstances where it can be transformational.

We are often taught not to question authority. But there is a delicate balance between challenging authority and understanding perspectives At Fidelity, our first experiment focused on using it as a way to prompt open conversation when there was a power imbalance in a room.  We rolled VTS out to our Design Team of about 100 people as a way to help junior designers to talk to the CEO or senior executives about their work and not get defensive.  We trained them to ask the VTS questions, especially “What do you see that makes you say that?”  We found that it was a great way for designers to learn how to get feedback on their designs.

Once we started having success with VTS, it was integrated into Fidelity’s 6-month long training program for the top 100 potential leaders.

That’s where we found the next circumstance – using VTS with leadership teams.  We found that VTS acts as a practical way to introduce the idea that you’re not just a do-er now, you’re a thinker and, as a result, you’re going to be faced with ambiguity.  Instead of shying away from it, you need to see that ambiguity is not only ok, but it is also fertile ground for us to grow our business.

That’s great but, as we both know, just because you learn something in training doesn’t mean you actually do it in real life.  Have you seen VTS make that jump?  Get people to move from knowing to doing?

 Suzi: I have.

At Fidelity, we would VTS customer research.  We would use the principle of VTS more than follow the strict methodology. We’d post our research on walls – sticky notes, photos of customers, flowcharts, everything, and we would bring in stakeholders and use the VTS process to tease out insights.  We give people time to LOOK and internalize what they were seeing before we told them what to think. By asking questions, we would discover what they were interpreting, identify unconscious biases, and learn what they already know or want to know about the customer.

At the event in Oxford, we VTS-ed the Business Model Canvas because most of the CMOs weren’t familiar with it.   Just by looking at it, they teased out its purpose, what was important and what wasn’t, what was confusing, and what wouldn’t work.  They walked away with a deeper internalization of its meaning

How is VTS able to do that?  To help people quickly internalize new insights or behaviors?

Suzi: The best way I can explain it is that VTS is like yoga.  When you teach someone yoga, with consistent practice they develop better posture and they walk and move fluidly and with strength.  So, when they’re going through their day, they become more aware of their posture and adjust but they don’t go into a whole vinyasa flow.

VTS is similar because when you use it with people, you’re teaching the mechanics of dialogue, of using evidence to progress, of managing ambiguity and conflict.

It takes time to tease out the power of the process but in the end, I’ve seen it help people realize that you don’t have to agree or disagree right away.  Instead, it gives them space to express an opinion and teaches them to ask questions and to ask for evidence in a way that is psychologically safe.

OK, but is it as simple as asking the 3 VTS questions?

Suzi: I wish.  You need somebody who is a skilled facilitator, who can keep the group moving forward and exploring ideas.

Leaders know they should stimulate conversation… solicit other people’s opinions, but they don’t know how. In meetings leaders will voice their own opinions, rely on the loudest voices, and steer the conversation. People will pick up on these signals. They will stop exploring and focus on giving the right answer.

Often, when people are running meetings they try to participate.  But that’s like trying to breathe underwater.  You can’t facilitate and participate.

What have you learned & applied?

Suzi: If you want to get people to engage in a great dialog, try giving them something to look at first. It can be a metaphor or real reflection. But give them something specific to point to anchor their thoughts.

Give people time to look and think before they speak or act. Silence is Golden. Silence is not the enemy. Give people time to silently observe something. Even 1 min can make a huge difference in how people respond.

You don’t need to compliment people on their thoughts to keep them engaged. Ask them for more… What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? People are not often asked for their opinions. That act alone is incredibly engaging.

As a leader it is just as important to get the obvious out on the table so that you can get to true insight.