In a recent episode of Hello Monday, Jessi Hempel interviews Dr. Natalie Nixon on creativity and her new book, The Creativity Leap. Natalie’s PhD in Design Management—plus her work in fashion, design, and business—led her to a catchy and compelling description of creative work. We accomplish creative work, she says, “by toggling between wonder and rigour.”
In the podcast conversation, Jessi and Natalie talk about intuition—and I was struck by something. “We don’t talk about intuition,” Natalie notes at about 6 minutes in. “We don’t talk about intuition in business school, in law school, or in medical school.” And yet, she says, “I observed that really successful leaders—especially really successful startup leaders—in their origin stories, there’s always this moment where ‘Something told me not to do the deal. Something told me to work with her over him.’ […] Every successful leader really reckons with incorporating acting on their intuition to make decisions.” Jessi agrees, noting that intuition comes up often in her interviews with leaders on Hello Monday as leaders cite it as the reason for their success.
The thing is, just because we don’t name intuition doesn’t mean we aren’t talking about it. That’s because intuition is really just confident, logical thinking.
Charles Sanders Peirce was a philosopher. He investigated how we inquire into and discover new knowledge.1 Before Peirce, we generally recognized the logical processes of deduction and induction. Deductive thinking helps us identify what must be true about a situation in order to explain it. When we deduce something, we look at the general rules and principles we know of and draw specific conclusions from that evidence. Inductive thinking involves drawing general conclusions from specific, limited evidence.
Peirce argued that effective reasoning follows a pattern: we determine the specific consequences of an idea (deduction), and then we judge whether the available evidence fits that idea and its consequences (induction). But how do we develop ideas?2
Abduction is the name of the logical process Peirce described for developing ideas. To think abductively means to generate and choose ideas that fit the situation at hand. A good idea should be verifiable—we should be able to use evidence to judge its fit—and should help us resolve the situation at hand. Peirce also had criteria to help choose the best ideas to test. He suggested that we should strive to conserve resources (e.g., those that most are most efficiently verifiable and usable in the situation), identify the most valuable ideas (specifically the “uberty” of an idea, or how likely it is that a possible idea might bring about an innovation), and the most relevant ideas (e.g., those that may apply beyond our current focus, too).3
Abduction is clearly an important step in any innovative process—but it is no more important than testing and using the ideas you generate. What, then, if you don’t have enough evidence to truly test and prove your ideas?
The process Peirce described—abduction, deduction, induction—is the ideal. However, we do not always have time and energy to follow the process diligently. Instead, we quickly make creative judgements based on a few observed qualities. This requires two related processes.4 The first Peirce called “abductory induction,” and it combines the first and last step of the inquiry process. We observe the qualities of the situation, and we generate possible ideas to resolve it based on those observations. The second process is known as “inference to the best explanation” (IBE).5 IBE is exactly what it sounds like. Given a number of possible ways of resolving a problem, choose the best one. (Peirce’s criteria, noted above, apply here.)
So what does all this have to do with intuition?
Intuition is the confident application of these shorthand logical approaches to creative problem solving. As Jessi and Natalie noted, we aren’t often explicitly taught about strengthening our intuition. Yet, everything we learn supports its development. The more we have to draw on in order to pull into the processes described above, the better our intuitive decisions will be.
I say that intuition is the confident application of these processes because they only work when we follow through. In reality, we use abductory induction and IBE all the time. When we engage in creative problem solving, we’re not only using information from the evidence in front of us. We’re drawing on our lived experience and our knowledge base. Even if we don’t directly recall or reference that background information, it is drawn into the creativity of abduction and it defines the general rules and principles we use in deduction. It provides us with the heuristics we use when engaging in IBE. But if we don’t have a bias towards action and instead operate with e.g., perfectionism, we fail to actually execute on these ideas. Thus, we need to have confidence in our abductory induction and IBE processes.
All this is simply a gentle challenge of the idea that we don’t talk about intuition. I think that all knowledge management practices and forms of education are actually fundamentally about strengthening our intuition.
That said, Natalie’s work is fascinating. I recommend the episode of Hello Monday and plan on picking up her book!
Peirce was actually specifically concerned with science and hypotheses generation, selection, and testing. Here I refer to generating, selecting, testing, and using ideas to apply these concepts to problem-solving more broadly.↩︎
He also cautioned not to produce ideas that stop the inquiry process—e.g., magical thinking, or by suggesting that whatever happened must be a complete mystery.↩︎
Actually, the difference between these two processes is the subject of substantive, controversial debate. This is in part because the scholars who study inference to the best explanation have also used Peirce’s term “abduction” to describe it. This understandably caused extensive confusion, but also probably a lot of philosophical debates and scholarship, so maybe it was for the best.↩︎
According to designer/strategist Roger Martin, a strategy is an imagined possibility with which we ask the question “What has to be true for this possibility to become real?”
In this episode IDEO U’s Creative Confidence podcast, Roger talks about how that approach helped unlock Bianca Andreescu’s success at the Grand Slam singles championship in 2019.
One of the fascinating things about this approach is that it acknowledges the need for system-wide changes. By asking “What has to be true?”, a strategist must consider all of the conditions of a system that should shift to make the imagined possibility a reality. Of course, most approaches to strategy do require some appreciation of the state of the strategic environment (e.g., the five forces model). None, however, emphasize the need to guarantee these systemic conditions quite as explicitly as asking “What must be true?”
It was mindblowing. It was absolutely incredible. The way that you could just do stuff that wasn’t really possible [on a computer]. Again, it was technically possible on a computer, but the user interface and experience was just transformative on the iPad. It was absolutely incredible.
And Jobs knew it. It’s one of my all-time favourites Jobs moments. It’s like fifteen seconds after the demo, and it’s just like… he’s used this. He was involved in the creation of it. They had run through the demo. He knew it. And even then, he was just astonished. He’s just like ‘I can’t believe [this]…’
It was, to my mind, the culmination of his life’s work. He comes on there, and he’s like, ‘Isn’t it incredible? Now anyone can make music.’
I almost want to transcribe this whole episode. John Gruber and Ben Thompson discuss the potential of the iPad—and its failure to reach it.
Ben uses the term “transformative” deliberately above. They discuss how, before the iPad, no computing experience could adapt to become wholly new tools and environments for whatever the user wanted to do. But the iPad can become a piano or a canvas or a television. In this sense, they argue that the iPad has (or had) the potential for disruptive innovation (RIP Clay Christensen)—but it’s not supposed to be a Mac.
These two think the iPad’s lost the chance to fulfill that potential, mostly because Apple has missed the opportunity to build a vibrant developer ecosystem due to App Store policies. I hope that isn’t the case, though I think we have to look beyond the iPad to fully appreciate what might happen next. The introduction of tablets and transformative computing experiences continues to echo throughout a variety of industries. Graphic designers and illustrators have a new suite of tools to directly interact with their creations in the iPad Pro and the Surface. Similarly, tablet or hybrid devices have transformed schools—schoolchildren now have a “homework” device for all kinds of assignments. It’s true that we still need developers to imagine ever-more revolutionary applications for these devices, but there’s no denying that disruption is taking root.
Either way, the episode is well worth a listen. Enjoy from 15:50 to ~31:22 and 1:26:59 to the end of the show if you want to focus on the iPad discussion.
The ever-refreshing Paul Jarvis shares some uncommon thoughts on productivity in Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast.
In particular, Paul and Jocelyn discuss the importance of resilience. Citing research and his own experience, Paul points out that resilience is a more important factor in success than many others.
Obviously, though, enabling resilience is not as easy as simply pointing out how important it is. As they discuss, resilience isn’t something innate—which means that it can only be developed through experience. And this is where things get tricky: who gets to have resilience-building experiences?
In my research on innovation skills, I discovered that resilience was one of three key domains that wasn’t an important outcome for our public education systems. This means that resilience training isn’t necessarily a public good. Only if you’re lucky (or privileged) will you have the chance to build up your resilience muscle.
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