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Intuition in Business
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“Let intuition be your guide with reason at your side.”

Those Aha! moments are increasingly being seen as a key business skill, write Mandy de Waal and Marensia Lotter

Your business is at an impasse, your most lucrative market is shrinking and your competitor is a multinational able to spend way, way more on advertising than your company ever could. Night after night you’ve been scenario planning, number crunching and analysing ways to outsmart the competition and reinvigorate your business. There are a number of options which are risky, yet which may yield reward. What do you do?

You are about to hire a new managing director for your family-owned business. You’ve done the background checks, personality profiles, interviews and meetings and now you need to make a decision between two top candidates. The outcome will affect your business dramatically. What do you do?

The answer to both is actually to turn off your analytical mind for a while. Stop thinking: meditate and day dream. Sound crazy? Well, the world’s greatest scientific breakthroughs were made in a flash of genius that occurred outside normal rational thought.

Einstein was daydreaming on a tram when he came up with the theory of relativity; Descartes dreamed of an angel who explained the principles of materialist rationalism to him; and Kekule discovered the cyclical structure of benzene after falling asleep in front of a fire.

What’s common to all these innovations is the moment of “Aha!” A sudden insight that rises from intuition and presents an illuminating, penetrating new realisation that can result in a breakthrough.

While intuition is evident in science, it is even more apparent in business. Ray Croc bought the first McDonald’s store when he could not afford it but had a good hunch: “My funny-bone instinct kept urging me on.” Conrad Hilton, who founded the Hilton chain of hotels, used sudden insight to bid on the world’s largest hotel and ended winning by a margin of only $200. “When I have a problem and have done all I can – thinking, figuring, planning – I keep listening in a sort of inside silence until something clicks and I feel a right answer,” said Hilton.

Then there’s Sony. Sony founders Masoru Ibuka and Akio Morita turned Sony into a globally recognised brand and one of the most profitable and innovative companies in the world.

The creation of the name is a lesson in intuition. Scanning dictionaries for a name, Ibuka and Morita found the “sonus” which is Latin for sound, and combined it with the world “sonny,” which was a part of colloquial vernacular in the US at the time, to make Sony. When asked what the secret of his success was, Ibuka said he had a ritual. Preceding a business decision, he would drink herbal tea. Before he drank, he asked himself: “Should I make this deal or not?” If the tea gave him indigestion, he would not make the deal. “I trust my gut, and I know how it works,” he said. “My mind is not that smart, but my body is.”

What is key to a “eureka” moment is a play between the seen and unseen, of analytics and intuition. The analytical mind will rationalise all the presented facts and information about a situation but intuition applies inner wisdom and knowledge to present what is hidden or lies at the core.

Intuition is a knowing that does not use an analytical or rational process. It is an immediate cognition – a faculty of the mind that taps into a holistic perspective which the analytical mind, that relies on linear data, cannot access.

Intuition is often referred to as a “feeling” rather than a conscious thought because it often does not make logical sense to the rational mind, which remains operational in a cause-effect manner. Intuition, rather, allows us to tap into circular information, which has a sense of the whole.

To base business decisions only on the rational mind limits one’s awareness to the immediate. It offers no insight into a time perspective – how things may change and the long-term effects of a decision. Slavish reliance on the tangible and analytical confines one to educated guesses when you could be tapping into infinite possibilities which only intuition can fathom.

This point is nicely argued by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: “People with high levels of personal mastery do not set out to integrate reason and intuition. Rather, they achieve it naturally as a by-product of their commitment to use all resources at their disposal. They cannot afford to choose between reason and intuition, or head and heart, any more than they would choose to walk on one leg or see with one eye.”

Like most things in life, there is no silver bullet for developing intuition. Rather it is more a journey or lifestyle choice. Michael Ray, who taught a legendary course on creativity in business as part of Stanford’s MBA programme, found that the success or failure of intuition in business largely rests with the motivation for bringing intuition into business.

He relates five truths about intuition that he says business people largely have trouble accepting but maintains that as people live these truths, intuition will work remarkable results in their business and personal lives. These are:

  • Intuition is a gift that everyone can develop. It is not the exclusive province of the gifted or the oddball;

  • Intuition complements reason. In fact, the combination of experience, information, reason and intuition is so powerful that psychologist Arthur Reber of Brooklyn College maintains that “a blending of the two modes … is still preferable to the use of only one or the other;”

  • Intuition is unemotional. People often mistake their feelings for intuition. Experiments show that when the individual is aware of his or her emotional tendencies or preferences, he or she is less liable to confuse these with intuition. For this reason, intuition works best when one is calm and serene;

  • Intuition demands action. If you do not follow through, your decision or idea dies; and

  • Intuition is mistake-free. Intuition is able to see options much more clearly than our other facilities, and is able to make the best out of what may seem to be a no-win situation.

The key to accessing intuition is the belief that intuition exists within you. If you are sceptic, simply suspend disbelief and see what happens. Then, intuition could present itself in any of a number of forms unique to who you are and how you access wisdom. The form could be feelings, symbols, dreams, emotions or an innate awareness of the wholeness of things.

Intuition can be developed by quietening and disciplining the mind through meditation, confirming intuitive experiences and taking action on sudden insight. Business leaders often operate from a high level of noise with hundreds of thoughts rippling the surface of the mind, constantly. It is akin to throwing a handful of pebbles in a lake, with many concentric circles rippling chaotically. A mind fine-tuned by meditation is like a lake in which one pebble has been thrown and the circles form a clearly delineated pattern that can be recognized for what it is. Then, confirming your intuition strengthens it and authenticates this invaluable decision-making ally. 

Simply put, to develop your intuition into a powerful partner, believe in it, exercise it regularly and act on it. The more you do, the more you will gain confidence and trust its unerring ability. Or, as Dr Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, astutely said: “Let intuition be your guide, with reason at your side.”

Reprinted with Mandy de Waal’s kind permission. Mandy is a communications consultant and founder of life-coach consultancy SoulCircle – http://www.soulcircle.co.za. Marensia Lotter is a clinical psychologist.

Business Day Management Review, Business Day, January 2006



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