Intuition, Futurism and Changing the Script

This year I gave two talks during the Women Economic Forum Slovenia 2020 at the Grand Union Hotel in Ljubljana. One on Intuition and Futurism, the other on Teamwork.

This article is based on the first talk on Intuition and Futurism.

I am going to tell you a story.

For 17 years and until 2012, I was a famous pianist of contemporary music giving concerts in the Netherlands and abroad. My colleagues and I used algorithms to alter the sound capabilities of our acoustic instruments and trigger visuals.

During those 17 years, I saw policymakers do two things with great eagerness: every 4 years they’d fiercely shrink the budget for the arts and redefine the types of projects that would be funded. The arts had to be profitable and self-sufficient at all costs, the government was not willing to chip in anymore. My observation — I have always been an observer, was that such tightening and redefining of the artistic policy was way too extreme.

And I observed something else happening at the level of society as well. Society was finally buying into the character assassination of artist musicians initiated by politicians back then.

My intuition was telling me that it was time to pivot to a different industry. My intuition was telling me that the system of the arts was going to collapse. Colleagues and the music industry at large were shocked by the scenario that I was anticipating for the arts and thought that I was out of my mind.

In 2012, I was the first and only musician in the Netherlands to pivot from the contemporary music arts to the domain of team and business transformation. And today, I run an exciting consultancy with clients all over the world. But I did it all alone with no moral support from the environment.

It was 5 years into my consultancy when I received an e-mail that read: Sonsoles, you were right, and you were ahead of the times. Imagine the emotion, tears racing down my cheeks, the transition had been such a lonely path.

This story is important for several reasons.

Being able to anticipate the future can be a very lonely place. You have to follow your hunches, but you might have to do that all by yourself until you find a supportive tribe.

But also, the story shows that to be intuitive, at least three ingredients are necessary:

  • Following trends and societal developments
  • Being able to spend time on your own, away from the noise
  • Taking a step back to connect the dots in new ways while seizing new opportunities.

In my case, I did so by joining two business networks 5 years before my actual pivot. It gave me the opportunity to attend innumerable events hosted in corporations, allowing me to see them from the inside. Standing with one foot in the arts and the other in the business world made it possible for me to start seeing parallels between high performing teams and high performing ensembles.

Ahead of my talk in Ljubljana, I did quite a bit of research and some experiments on Facebook. I can tell that intuition is:

  • Relied upon by uber-successful business leaders

Jeff Bezos is such an example. ‘All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart and intuition’, he says. In other words, his intuition is an asset, not a weakness.

  • Rejected by others for a number of reasons. For some, ratio wins from intuition. Others during my Facebook experiment pointed out that the existence of intuition is denied by those who don’t have it themselves.
  • Misunderstood by many.

You should see some of the answers I got during my Facebook experiment.

On Facebook I had asked two things:

What is intuition? and Why is it not appreciated by some?

I got the vaguest answers, including ‘it can’t be explained’. Now, imagine someone is selling you a car or a vacuum cleaner. You want to be told the exact specs because unless that happens, you won’t buy. And the salesperson says: it can’t be explained!

So, if we are here to change the script and have intuition be valued for the asset it is, the first step is being articulate about what intuition actually is. Otherwise, nobody will buy.

By the way, it made me laugh that when I asked, Why it is not appreciated by some? that nobody said, well, because nobody knows what it is!

So let’s go, here are 5 ways to change the script.

1. Be articulate

What is intuition?

If I go back to my opening story, a very pragmatic definition would be — superior pattern-recognition based on years of experience, observation, and experimentation.

A more elaborate definition would be: an ongoing process unconsciously blending and cultivating 4 elements simultaneously: recent data that you’ve analyzed, past experiences, your future ambitions, and the possibilities.

Intuition is about synthesis, quick synthesis, an essential skill for success in the 21st century with its accelerating change, interconnected global challenges, and information overload.

Intuitive thinking organically adds meaning to our perceptions of data, linking seemingly unrelated things — like ensembles and teams, and engaging our whole brain.

And because it improves with experience, people who are not open to new experiences will not be able to develop their intuition. Intuition is therefore inherently related to fierce curiosity.

Authentic intuition is characterized by intense clarity in mind, a strong feeling sense, and a working together of the left and right brain.

And because feelings play a crucial role in intuitive decision-making, we have to develop our emotional intelligence so that we can recognize and understand our emotions and decide on our next move.

Intuition keeps us safe from harm, whether personal or from the market, like it saved me from a market that was crashing down.

As you see, intuition is not something mystical. It can be explained, and therefore sold, like the car or the vacuum cleaner.

Scientific experiments have confirmed two things:

  • Analytical ability produces better outcomes for simple choices
  • Complex decisions involving multiple simultaneous variables are a different ball game. They are better served by subconscious deliberation while our attention is directed elsewhere

Intuition lives in the place where that deliberation takes place.

In today’s world of business volatility and constant change, intuition is an invaluable asset. And one that is often dismissed in a workplace setting even if the world’s most brilliant leaders are known to have leveraged it to create substantial financial gain for their organizations.

Intuition is broadly misunderstood and often lacks context. But I don’t want to get ahead of my narrative.

2. Tell stories

Like I told mine.

What is your story? When did your intuition serve you in business?

Tell that story!

3. Give examples of influential business leaders

CEO Satya Nadella, who in just three and a half years generated $250bn in market value for Microsoft says about himself: ‘I am pretty intuitive.’

Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, who tripled Best Buy’s stock value in 2013 with his Renew Blue transformation, touts: ‘to make strategic decisions, the only way to feel what was needed was to be in the store and trust my intuition.’

4. It is time to clarify those misconceptions.

Intuition is not the opposite of rational thought. Intuition is grounded in experience and knowingness, as we saw in the fifth slide. It is mindful of our intellect and thereby analytics.

Instead of a tug of war between data analysis or intuition, we can say that:

  • It is useful to be aware of the different styles of decision making and to take advantage of the one that’ll better serve us depending on the situation we are in. You can take a mental step back and judge if the choice requires the counterintuitive or the counter-analytical.
  • Whole-brain working produces higher quality leadership and faster decision making that will be very useful in our fast-paced market.

In other words, it is ‘and and’, not ‘or or’.

5. It starts with awareness

Whereas analytical ability is great for understanding the past, intuitive ability is great for anticipating and building the future.

And right at this very moment, we are transitioning from a linear world used to looking to the past for solutions to a non-linear world that senses and co-creates the future in interdependence with different stakeholders and world events.

Intuition is non-linear, and therefore a perfect match to our times.

That’s what I meant with context earlier in the article. Today, intuition is an asset that helps successful teams and their leaders navigate uncertainty and complexity in a world that is global, uncertain, volatile, and networked.

Within that context, intuition is a gift, a superpower, not a weakness. In a world that is round and impacted by constant new variables, we can not respond linearly. It doesn’t matter how much data you analyze, you will be taking a risk anyway because variables are changing all the time. If after an exhaustive analysis of a course of action for a new strategy, product, investment, or hiring decision, you still feel that something is off, then something probably is. Trust it.

Intuitive leaders reposition their organizations in anticipation of market change. Just like I repositioned my business in anticipation of the collapse of the arts.

I am writing as we are on lockdown due to the coronavirus. Extreme upheaval like this one is not the moment to develop your intuition. Intuition develops when things move relatively slowly over a long period of time, giving you the chance to be very curious and lean back to observe.

Extreme upheaval is the time to leverage your intuitive superpower if you already have it. This article aims to give you ammunition to defend your case.

Nevertheless, anticipatory leadership can definitely be developed and honed over a long period of time. And I am going to tell you exactly what skills you need to develop.

Based on my work with teams and their leaders, I can tell that intuitive team members and leaders consistently display 4 skills that you too can develop and hone.

As an intuitive pro you are:

  1. A futurist who follows trends and societal developments guided by fierce curiosity
  2. A strategist who like a designer, reframes business challenges by creating new meaning for investors, customers, suppliers, and employees. You actively hone the muscle of seeing opportunities whenever there is a market shift.
  3. An integrator of ideas, beliefs, and emotions who aligns people and resources towards co-creating innovative products and services. When nothing is certain, everything is possible.
  4. A whole-system thinker who looks at teams, product lines, organizations, industries, markets and societies as interdependent networks.

In other words, you transform volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity into teams and organizations that are vibrant, uplifting, creative, and abundant.

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Sonsoles Alonso

Misfit helping CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires. Also virtually.