Why leaders should try intuitive thinking.
Imagine you’re sitting at a large conference room table. A team of creatives are presenting a new campaign for your brand. The creative director stands up, full of excitement, and begins to explain a fresh perspective on your product.
As a cutting-edge marketer, you believe in the value of big ideas. But as you sit and listen to the creative pitch, you pause to think. How do you make sure you are objective and open minded? When presented with multiple campaigns, how can you be sure you pick the most effective idea? And you want to make sure that you don’t let logic cloud your thinking. How do you actually make decisions on creative ideas that maintains the right balance of emotion and logic?
Being a marketing decision maker is challenging. Your university degree taught you how to make marketing plans, orchestrate strategies, and balance a marketing budget. I’m not aware of many college courses on neuromarketing that focus on what goes on in the brain of the actual marketing decision maker.
So in order to understand how to make better marketing decisions, first let’s explore how creative people come up with new ideas in the first place. The parallel is enlightening.
The creative decision-making process.
Every Friday morning, a community of writers at Adobe meet for an hour-long video conference call. The purpose of these writer’s workshops is to better understand the creative process and to learn how to apply it in our work. Best practices are shared. New campaigns are reviewed. And the entire group walks away inspired for the next week.
Recently, one of the writers, Rebecca Stately, shared a presentation about the unique processes that creative people use to come up with fresh ideas. She interviewed a handful of people with diverse jobs and backgrounds. A photographer from New York. A playwright from Chicago. A writer from Silicone Valley. And a painter from Boston.
Each individual had a very personal and unique process for coming up with creative ideas. One began the process by visiting a coffee shop first thing in the morning and watching people welcome the day. Another read comic books, then took a nap, and finally put on loud music while he cranked out new ideas. A third would visit art galleries, doodle in a blank notebook, go to therapy for a few hours every week, and eventually sit down to paint beautiful art. And finally the fourth would read and read seminal works by other authors, visit with his shaman, and then binge write, sometimes for months at a time.
Certainly anyone you ask who creates original content will have an individual process. Mine involves constantly sitting in different chairs. (That’s right, inspiration is all about the right amount of rump cushioning.) But there are some common steps that most of us follow.
The first is immersion. This is the first phase where you soak in as much information on the topic. Read and watch related content, books, and video. Fill the well with more knowledge on the topic than you will ever use. I call it building up your supply of idea fodder.
The second phase is raw idea generation. Armed with all that fodder, you start to make new connections and combine data in interesting ways. It’s important to get past all the low hanging fruit in order to find original ideas. Chances are, you may get lucky in this phase, but more often you come up with derivative ideas.
Next is the incubation phase. Here’s where you completely walk away from the project. Sleep on it overnight. Take a long walk. Go watch a movie. Distract yourself, but make sure you’re in a comfortable environment. This gives your subconscious brain a chance to process all the data and recent connections.
Even though it seems like this step is a waste of time, every creative person will tell you that it’s essential in finding that eureka moment. What we don’t realize is that constant analysis and cross referencing is still going on in our brains under the hood.
After incubation, once we start thinking about the project, suddenly the ideas come faster. All the subconscious thinking has ordered the data. Now when we think about it, we can more easily make associations and new connections—and hopefully get that big hit of inspiration where everything comes together. We discover the answer.
For those who have trained their brain with this workflow, with practice, the ideas come faster. I can certainly confirm that the process took me much more time and effort at the beginning of my career. Today I can rip through this process in a more limited amount of time.
How this helps non creative folks.
So what does the creative process have to do with making marketing decisions? I would submit that the same process that’s used to create an idea is just as valid when judging the same idea.
That’s right, if marketers use the creative process while making decisions about creative ideas, they’ll have a better chance at success.
Think of it as the process for intuitive thinking. This is the type of thinking that embraces both your logical and emotional brain. But more often than not, most of us only use logical thinking when making a marketing decision on creativity.
Take the story at the opening of this article. Let’s say you listen to a creative presentation, knowing you have to pick a campaign idea. The standard way that most marketers perform this decision is to make a mental checklist and compare the ideas with their previous expectations. Then they listen just long enough to understand the ideas that are being presented.
Before the presentation is over, they have done a quick analysis against that existing checklist. Even if they react positively to an emotional idea or encounter a new direction they haven’t considered, they quickly reject it. Sure, we’ll laugh and make a joke about how we would never consider something that crazy.
Usually it’s rejected because it doesn’t match the previous expectations or the emotion is dismissed because they start worrying how someone else would feel about it. They ignore their feelings and try to slow down and make a rational decision. Emotions are weak and scary. And a good decision maker has to quickly rank ideas and find the idea that will make the biggest impact on the numbers.
Except this process is flawed.
What’s really happening is that we are forcing our executive function to overcompensate and control our subconscious. Even if we feel something, we push those feelings down and make a real decision with logic. If we only using logic to make a decision, we’re not smart thinkers. We’re really just shallow thinkers, using only our conscious, slow brain.
If we’ve learned anything from all the books on neuroscience and the brain, it’s that we are making these types of decisions the wrong way. We think that we need to exercise extra effort with rational thought. But in reality, our subconscious thoughts expressed in emotion are a treasure trove of information.
After all, our prefrontal cortex can only handle a few variables, but our subconscious is much more robust.
Here is some advice from psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis[i] on making better decisions, “Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.”
That sounds a lot like the process for coming up with creative ideas. And even though many disagree with his theory of unconscious thought, there are still ways to balance both types of thinking. What if we learned from other successful intuitive thinkers and tried to use some of the same steps as those who discovered the big idea.
Imagine if you soaked up the presentation and data on the various campaign options. You listened with both your logical checklist and your emotions. And I mean really considered how you are feeling at every moment in the presentation. Focus on your initial reaction and your feelings after the idea has settled in. Then, instead of making a decision right there in the meeting, you gave your subconscious a chance to process it.
You close the meeting, thanking the creative team for the ideas. And you sleep on it. Or go back to your office in a comfortable setting and focus on something else. When the time is right, you readdress the decision and see how you think and feel about it. I would imagine sometimes you may come to a different conclusion than your original expectations.
Big decisions require our emotions. Our gut. We need to access that wealth of data under the iceberg. Intuitive thinkers have mastered this process. Certainly after training yourself to focus more on your emotions, you can make this process happen faster.
Think of famous entrepreneurs or leaders who somehow knew to zig when the world was zagging. They could recognize a big idea instantly. Probably because of the way it felt. The way they had trained their minds to process decisions in an intuitive way. They trained their dopamine sensors to react quickly when presented with good ideas. These are intuitive thinkers. Intuitive thinkers have learned to tap into their emotions and tap into that massive amount of experience and computational power.
Jonah Lehrer offers an interesting perspective on experts who have learned to use intuitive thinking.[ii]
“We tend to think of experts as being weighed down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast amount of explicit knowledge, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When an expert evaluates a situation, he doesn’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. He doesn’t rely on elaborate spreadsheets or long lists of pros and cons. Instead, the expert naturally depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons. His prediction errors have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows him to tap into a set of accurate feelings he can’t begin to explain. The best experts embrace this intuitive style of thinking. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.”
In essence, if you want to get better at making marketing decisions, you need to embrace intuitive thinking. When we encounter complex and challenging decisions, our emotions can help us more than we think.
And just as idea generators have perfected this process, decision makers can do the same. Take in all the data. Think it through for a while. Then take a break and let your subconscious process it all. Finally, come back to the decision and pay attention to both your emotions and your logical checklist.
By training yourself to be more intuitive, you may see new connections or experience a stronger feeling on one idea over the others. You’ll find that you not only feel more confident about a decision, but you also build up an expert marketing gut—a valuable asset that will help you throughout your entire career.
[i] On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect, by Ap Dijksterhuis*, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, Rick B. van Baaren. February 2006.
[ii] How we decide, by Jonah Lehrer. January 2010. (No Dylan quotes referenced.)