Intuition in Business

by Angela O’Connell and Pat Naylor

Developing your intuition

There are many ways to develop your own intuition and here are some suggestions. Try this first: just read through the headings and notice which one you are drawn to – trust your intuition and have a go. Once you have discovered what works for you, you can use the same technique to find out what works for the individuals in your team.

Talk to people you think are intuitive

Angela once worked for a very annoying manager – annoying, that is, because he was always coming up with far more bright ideas than she could make happen. Some ideas were hopelessly impractical, but others were real winners. So she decided to ask him where his ideas came from. The conversation went something like this:

Angela: ‘Ian, you come up with more new ideas than everyone else put together and I would love to know how you do it.’

Ian (with a blank stare): ‘I’ve never really thought about it.’

Angela: ‘Can you think about it now?’

Ian: ‘No idea – I just do.’

Angela (changing tack): ‘OK, well your latest idea for improving customer service – how did you come up with that? It’s a great idea and I would love to have great ideas like that too, so please tell me how you did it.’

Ian: ‘Not sure; it just sort of came to me – an intuitive sort of thing.’

Angela: ‘Where were you when the idea just came to you? What were you doing? What stimulated it?’

Ian: ‘Ah, I see what you mean. Well, I had been looking at the customer satisfaction ratings and wondering how we could improve them – not that they were bad or anything – then I lost interest and found myself thinking about that piece of music I had been trying to play the other night.’

Angela (with a look of amazement at Ian’s triumphant expression): ‘And?’

Ian: ‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? My ideas come to me when I think like a jazz player – improvising – rather than a classical player, who has to rehearse everything.’

Angela: ‘I’m beginning to understand... can you go through how you reached your conclusion, thought by thought, for me?’

Ian: ‘OK...’

What followed was Ian remembering how he had been looking at the customer satisfaction results. This had reminded him of a sheet of classical music and he felt a mismatch between the fluidity of what customers want and the formal customer standards that the company used. His mind then took him to his favourite occupation – playing jazz and improvising with others. Bingo! If customer standards allowed staff to improvise with each other, he just knew results would improve. He had great faith in everyone and he was right – results did improve, and to this day when Angela wants help from her intuition she goes into Ian’s jazz mode.

Talk to people, especially people who get results in different ways from you. It might take a while to get to the heart of what they do – what stimulates their intuition – but the results will be worth it.

Get yourself in the zone

You will find that you are more open to your intuition when you are totally absorbed in an activity and your left-brain processes are quiet.

You will, likely as not, know what activities take you to that level of absorption. If not, ask yourself what you are doing when

  • Time passes without your knowledge
  • You might be aware of what is going on around you, but it doesn’t distract you
  • You have no or little internal dialogue going on
  • You feel deeply involved in something
  • You have a heightened sense of reality in the object of your attention.

To prepare yourself to be absorbed, do the following:

  • Quiet your mind
  • Focus your attention
  • Be non-judgemental
  • Have no sanctions or time limits
  • Have no fear of ridicule
  • Play some calming music.

In some ways, this is like being in what athletes describe as ‘the zone’. People often report a heightened sense of intuition or having ideas come to them from nowhere when they are

  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Reading
  • Doing a repetitive task – even something as simple as chopping vegetables.

At work, you could decide to go for a walk at lunchtime, find a quiet corner where you can immerse yourself in a book, do more ‘managing by walking around’ or allow yourself the time to daydream ‘what if’ thoughts.


We all love stories, books, films, soap operas and everyday family dramas. The great thing about stories is they have a beginning, a middle and, sometimes, an end, all provided by the author. Stories have a life of their own and are not dictated to by real-world censors. They are a great way to get your intuition to help you solve a problem you have been wondering about for a while, such as what to do next about a tricky situation.

First of all, get yourself comfortable, making sure there will be no distractions, and then allow time for your story to develop. Think about something you would like your intuition to work on. Just relax and an image will pop into your mind. Hold onto that image, because that is the staring point for your story. Let the image become clearer and clearer in your mind’s eye and then let your mind’s eye roam over the scene, considering each of the following points in turn. Perhaps you can see a path ahead that curves into the distance and you can help the story unfold by answering these questions:

  • What’s the landscape like?
  • Is there a house? A dwelling?
  • Who is the main character?
  • What task are they doing?
  • Where does help come from?
  • What hinders them?
  • What happens next?
  • The outcome is?
  • The future is?

When you have finished your story, go back over it again and think how it evolved. The first four questions are descriptive and help you get started, so the story might begin with something like ‘Once upon a time...’ Once started, the story is able to bypass all the logical arguments you might have, because the next five questions ask you to use your imagination.

Your intuition will have provided you with a new way of thinking about your question. What insights do you have that will help you now?

What are you drawn to?

Away from work, you can usually find some time to relax and do nothing, but your intuition does not switch off and it will be working away for you in the background. You might be window shopping or walking the dog when you notice something and are drawn towards it. It could be an unusual item, a piece of wood, a colourful picture – just about anything. Your intuition has drawn your attention to this for a reason. Now, all you have to do is to work out why.

Find a time when you can just let your mind wander and then look around you – is there something that you feel drawn to? If not, wait until you are somewhere different and look again – maybe it’s a post card, a Russian doll, a piece of poetry, some lace or a tree? The list is endless.

What is it about this object that attracted you it? Perhaps it made you feel curious? Did you like the feel of it? There may well be more than one reason you were attracted to it, so do not limit yourself.

What qualities were you drawn to? Were the colours bright and vivid or calm and peaceful? What in particular were you curious about? The texture – was it smooth as silk or weathered like a tree trunk?

When you have finished, write two lists: first, what attracted you to this item and, second, what were the qualities you were drawn to. These two lists are your intuition’s way of letting you know what is important to you – things that are so important and everyday to you that you probably take them for granted.

Now, as you look at your lists, think about where these qualities are missing in your life. Is there an issue at work where it would be really useful to have them? For example, if you were attracted to a vibrant colour and you thought its qualities were bold and exciting, then where in your life would you value colour, boldness and excitement? What insights do you now have?


What you have done in the two exercises above is to access your intuitive thinking through storytelling and being drawn to something. By following this through with logical thinking, you have made sense of feelings and ideas that you might otherwise have overlooked.

How senior managers use their intuition

Daniel J Isenberg, a professor at Harvard Business School, studied 16 senior managers in major corporations. He spent days observing them as they worked. Next, he interviewed them asked them to perform various exercises which were designed to discover what made them successful. He identified five different ways that successful managers use intuition.

  1. Successful managers use intuition to sense when a problem exists.
  2. Intuition assists people to rapidly perform well-learned behaviour patterns. Once managers are ‘fluent’ at performing specific tasks, they can execute programs without conscious effort. (Isenberg defines intuition as the smooth automatic performance of a learned behaviour.)
  3. The higher you go in a company, the more important it is that you combine intuition and rationality, and see problems as interrelated.

    Daniel J Isenberg
    Intuition is used to synthesise isolated bits of data and experience into an integrated picture, often with an ‘aha’ experience.
  4. Intuition is used to check on the results of rational analysis. In practice, executives work on an issue until they find a match between feelings and logic; they search until their ‘gut’ clicks with their intellect.
  5. Intuition is used to bypass in-depth analysis and come up with a quick solution.

Intuition and procrastination

Perhaps you think procrastination is a bad thing? Well, sometimes it is a good thing – perhaps your intuition might be holding you back for a good reason. Ask yourself why you (or a team member) are procrastinating and chances are

  • You need more information
  • Some further analysis is necessary
  • The information is too complex or too simple
  • The risk and uncertainty too unpredictable.

There will be other reasons why you are procrastinating, so let your intuition tell you about them. Once you think you understand why you are procrastinating, ask yourself ‘What is my gut feel about this now?’ You will either feel able to proceed or you will still be unsure. If the latter is the case, wait. Sleep on it, for what the gut feels the head can think about, and you will, with the help of your intuition, be able to make progress when the time is right.