Intuition Is Not Your Enemy – It's Your Superpower

July 5, 2017

"It is through logic that we prove, but through intuition that we discover." - Henri Poincaré

"Intuition becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely because there is so much data." - John Naisbitt

Whether you are a marketer trying to optimize a buyer’s journey, a designer trying to smooth out a user experience, or a business leader who just wants to understand what your customers really value and why, the most powerful – and dangerous – tool in your toolbox is your intuition.

Intuition is dangerous because it can send you quite far down the wrong road before your conscious mind wakes up enough to start wondering how you got there. On the other hand, your intuition has an almost magical ability to give you a deeper, more nuanced understanding of other people just by experiencing a simple story about how they interact with their world. More about that later. First, let’s deal with the danger.

Because of its powerful tendency to produce biased reasoning, some people have come to fear all intuitive thinking. This is unfortunate but understandable. Cognitive psychology and behavioral economics have been piling up evidence for decades that shows us just how poor our thinking often is.

Indeed, all humans are subject to a depressingly long list of cognitive biases. Even the brightest, most educated among us may believe they are standing on solid, rational ground when, in fact, they are knee-deep in the quicksand of logical fallacies and baseless beliefs.

The problem, we are told, is that most of the time we rely on intuition instead of deliberate, logical, dispassionate reasoning to drive our decisions and behavior. While we all like to consider ourselves “reasonable”, the reality is that much of our reasoning is an attempt to justify some unconscious, intuitive conclusion we have already made.

Making decisions based on “gut feelings” was helpful back when some quick intuition could keep us from becoming a predator’s quick snack. But most of us today are knowledge workers looking at a screen, not hunters or gatherers looking over our shoulder. In this era of artificial intelligence and data-driven algorithms, simple human intuition can seem like an outdated evolutionary tool at best and a dangerous distraction at worse.

So is intuition friend or foe? Is it something to be feared or can it be harnessed?

I believe that wisely using your intuition is essential to business success. However, to effectively use your intuition without getting burned, you must first understand and respect the role it plays, both in your own thinking and in your customer’s decision-making process.

To do this, you must first face up to two realities:

Reality Number 1: If you are human (I’m assuming you are), you are going to use your intuition, whether you want to or not. In fact, you use your intuition – your unconscious pattern matching ability that helps you quickly recognize situations, predict the immediate future, and decide what to do next – moment-by-moment, all day long, every day.

And if you think you can completely replace human intuition with logical data analysis – even if only for a while – you are only fooling yourself. You do not have a Spock mode. You will need to use your intuition, both to interpret the data you do have and to fill in the gaps.

Of course, sometimes you will need to completely overrule your intuition, if that’s what the data or your more deliberate reasoning is telling you. But that is always a temporary situation. Eventually, you will either align your intuition with the data-driven logic, ignore the data altogether, or construct some kind of convoluted rationalization  because, well, … you’re human.

Reality Number 2: If your customers are human (again, I’m assuming most are), their decisions and behavior, more often than not, will be based on that lazy, biased, intuitively human way of thinking.

In fact, this is the one area in which your own human intuition can outshine even the most powerful software algorithms: understanding the intuition-driven inner world of other humans. We are first and foremost social creatures. Your brain is wired to interpret the words and actions of those around you so you can make educated guesses about what is going on in their brains.

So, putting these two realities together – that both you and your customers are human and therefore highly prone to socially driven intuitive thinking – it only makes logical sense that you should be building and sharpening your intuition about your customers’ intuitions.

But, in most businesses, that is not usually what happens. Instead, even as we try to understand and deliver value to customers, our intuitive sense of how customers calculate value are affected by two big cognitive handicaps: the Curse of Knowledge and the Illusion of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge

If you are any good at what you do, you probably know too much about your product or service to be able to see it from the point of view of a first-time customer. This is called the curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge will, without you realizing it, cause you to paint your customers with a product-oriented brush. You may intellectually acknowledge that your product or service is not the center of your customer’s world but it is very difficult to intuitively understand this.

Part of the reason is because of something called confirmation bias, which is “the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions” (Wikipedia). We are so steeped in our own world that we don’t even notice that most of our “customer-focused” thinking is actually framed in terms of our product-centric viewpoint.

Think about it: Even the words “customer” and “user” are nothing but labels for product-oriented roles. Nobody looks in a mirror and sees a “customer” or “user”.

The curse of knowledge is like a lens that colors everything you see. It is very difficult to deal with simply because there is no way to “unknow” what you know.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Just as most of us know too much about our own world we know too little about our customers’.

You may feel like you know a lot about your customers: who they are, what they like and dislike, where, when, and how they buy or engage with your brand. All that is important – essential even – but it’s not enough.

You also have to know why. Why do customers make the decisions they make? What causes similar people, who have similar experiences, to arrive at different conclusions about your brand’s value? What is going on in their heads?

Knowing your customer in this deeper sense is different than just having a lot of information about them. The illusion of knowledge feeds on information. But information is not knowledge and the more we have the more we are prone to thinking we understand more than we actually do.

Customers are more than statistics. They are humans – you know, those creatures that use their lazy, biased intuition to make a decision and then wrap some pseudo-reasonable story around it afterward.

So, are we all hopelessly lost in our own little intuitive worlds? Not at all. But if you want to conquer both the curse and the illusion of knowledge while harnessing the power your own intuition, you must do two things:

1)     Avoid using your own familiar product-centric world to interpret and fill in the gaps about your customer journeys and user experiences.

2)    Intuitively understand your customers’ inner motivations and the sense-making stories that they use to justify their decisions.

Can this be done? Yes, but it won’t happen by looking at your customer from the inside of your business outwards. That puts you right back into the realm of both the curse and the illusion of knowledge.

So, what’s the answer?

Remember when I said “there is no way to ‘unknow’ what you know”? Well, it turns out that isn’t actually true. There is a way and it’s called “storytelling”.

Sense-Making Value Stories

Storytelling is the antidote to both the curse and the illusion of knowledge. Why? Because stories are how we make sense of our world and, most important, how we make sense of each other.

All day long, from moment to moment, we are all unconsciously interpreting what just happened and then using past experiences and familiar patterns of cause-and-effect to help us predict what will happen next. These are the “sense-making stories” that we tell ourselves so that we can decide what actions to take to avoid threats and exploit opportunities (or just get through another day).

Sense-making stories may or may not be logical and are far from thorough. In fact, humans are designed to avoid burning unnecessary calories when it comes to thinking. Instead, we are always trying to find mental shortcuts that will quickly deliver only the most useful information while ignoring most of what our senses are picking up (and not worrying about what a more deliberate thought process might reveal).

We hate uncertainty but, because we are calorie-conserving (i.e. lazy), we are quick to believe the most obvious sense-making story that occurs to us – especially if it lines up with our existing beliefs – and then move on.

Personally, it was quite a revelation when I stopped looking at customers as merely collections of abstract data points and started seeing them as sense-making storytellers who are desperately trying to feel confident about the cognitive shortcuts they are taking as they try to decide what action to take next.

When you start to intuitively understand how customers intuitively arrive at their decisions, your own storytelling imagination is triggered, which sparks new ideas about how you can influence your customers’ stories and, therefore, their decisions.

To illustrate this kind of thinking all you have to do is think about the last time you actually interacted with a customer (as opposed to staring at abstract customer data).

As you spent time observing and interacting with your customer, your brain was unconsciously picking up on their body language, their tone of voice, what they were saying (and perhaps what they were not saying), and a thousand other clues.

As a fellow human, you can’t help it. Your brain is wired to try to sense what others are thinking and feeling in order to predict how they might react to what might you say or do next. You unconsciously create an intuitive story in your own mind, from moment to moment, much of which is based on your educated guesses about the intuitive stories being created by people you are interacting with.

In those moments of human-to-human interaction, you come to “know” your customers in a uniquely human way. But this knowledge and the new ideas it sparks are not easily translated into the language of your fellow insiders when you get back to the office.

It’s tempting to prematurely translate your new customer understanding directly into new marketing copy or new line items on a feature list. However, it is better to share your customer value stories with others to spark more insights and ideas.

But then, for those who did not directly interact with the customer, how do you help them to “unknow” what they know?

This is where storytelling comes to the rescue.

Have you ever been in the middle of reading a good book or watching a good movie and felt totally immersed in the story? It’s as if you were the hero on the quest instead of the potato on the couch. Stories have a way of getting us out of our own perspective and into someone else’s.

The stories that captivate us have certain common elements. The hero (i.e. the customer, not you or your company) is faced with a challenge. He or she decides to invest in a solution, which triggers an experience that results in some kind of outcome.

The key is to document your customer insights in a story format that goes beyond the obvious product-centric functional storyline to include the customer’s social and emotional challenges and outcomes as well. Your story should also explicitly show how the customer weaves those functional, social, and emotional storylines into a rational (though not necessarily logical) sense-making value story.

One of the reasons that this kind of storytelling works to lift you and your team out of your own world and into the customer’s is that it forces you to try to trace the thread of cause-and-effect from the original inciting incident all the way to the final outcome. It has been scientifically shown that we humans have a very strong tendency to think we know more than we do and that the most effective way to mitigate this illusion of knowledge is to try to explain what we know.

Finally, the ideal story framework should map the hero’s journey to your company’s external touchpoints. It should have just enough of a character-driven story arc to keep that intuitive human-to-human understanding front and center while also inviting more deliberate analysis from different angles by different functional stakeholders within your company.

Respect, Don’t Neglect, the Power of Why

No matter how much quantitative or qualitative customer data you gather or how powerful your analysis software is, you will still need to use your intuition to really understand the why behind your customers’ decisions and behaviors.

Of course, we all need to continually exercise mindfulness and humility. A guess is still a guess, no matter how “educated” it is. We should always be ready to accept that our intuitive inferences could be wrong and let the real-world data correct our thinking.

But if you and your team are going to have to guess – and you will – you might as well build your intuitive abilities to be as sharp and insightful as possible, while avoiding your own insider bias. Thinking about your customers in terms of sense-making value stories can help.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this analogy:

Think of your intuition as if it were a power tool that has no “Off” button. It’s always on and therefore always dangerous. Use it improperly and someone is going to get hurt.

But learn how to leverage your natural intuition – especially to gain insight into how your customers intuitively calculate value by creating sense-making value stories – and it can become a superpower that will give you a huge advantage in designing better offers, solutions, and experiences for your customers.


Michael Dennis Moore
Michael is the principal marketing and innovation consultant at Likewhyze and the creator of the Value Story Mapping process.