Innovation—You’re Doing It Wrong: How To Put Intuition And Ideas Before Tests And Analyses

Douglas Van Praet describes how the unconscious and the emotional drive people, and how they, not tests, should drive the business of bringing ideas to life. He offers four ways to reframe the innovation process.

There’s a costly misconception hindering innovation. Marketing models hold that strategic reasoning must always precede and inform emotional execution. Before we decide to try an idea, we must first prove its worth by conscious knowledge untainted by feeling. But neuroscience suggests this is not only wrong, it’s backwards.

If “knowledge is power” we must understand cognition or the “process of knowing.” Cognitive science tells us that discoveries and decisions are made largely unconsciously. And feelings not reasoning come first. Emotions precede and inform rational understanding.

It’s time to flip the script and listen first to our bodies and then our minds. As French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal presciently observed, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Image: Flickr user Keith Ellwood

The Body Leads The Mind

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained this peculiarity through a revolutionary experiment known as the Iowa Gambling Task, designed to understand real-world decisions. Subjects could freely choose from four decks of playing cards in an attempt to win the most money and determine the most profitable decks. There were two bad decks full of high risk cards, and two profitable decks that yielded conservative but consistent pay-outs and rarely punished players.

Subjects were asked to report when they could explain why they favored one deck over another. It required about 50 cards before a participant began to change their behavior and favor a certain deck, and about 80 cards before they became aware of why they did it. Rationality is a relatively slow process. But in addition to asking them to explain their decisions, they also measured their emotional responses by gauging how the electrical properties of skin responded to anxiety and stress.

The experimenters found that the body got “nervous” after drawing only about 10 cards from the losing decks. Even though the subjects were not consciously aware, their bodies developed an accurate sense of fear and anxiety in response to a bad deck well in advance of the rational mind. The subjects' feelings were faster and more accurate, having figured it out way before the conscious mind was tipped off.

Damasio formulated the landmark somatic marker hypothesis. This model of decision making shows how our decisions often depend upon access to what he calls somatic markers, feelings that are tagged and stored in the body and our unconscious minds. As Damasio states, “It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent literally in the flesh.”

This task is a challenge and metaphor to improve innovation. We can’t prove the profitability of an intuition or idea because it’s simply not open to conscious explanation. And if we wait for rational proof, we won’t get there in time or at all.

Image: Flickr user Michael Gil

Innovate Or Die vs. Test And Kill

Progress and profit lie at the speeding crossroads of creativity and risk management. So quick and easy concept/copy tests have been developed to decide which projects, products and ads get the green light. Respondents scrutinize and decide the value of new ideas. Marketers then analyze the explicit evidence to make their decisions.

The topline reports skim the surface because we’re asking consumers and ourselves to explain primarily intuitive purchase decisions. Intuition by definition is “something that is known or understood without proof or evidence.” The primacy of rational analysis is reflected in the abysmal failure rates of these tests. Most ideas that pass, go on to fail in market—about 80% of the new products launched in the US. Houston, we have a problem!

The problem is not the creative process. It’s the market research testing process. There’s never been a new idea proven without first trying it.

Steve Jobs refused testing. James Dyson, and Dietrich Mateschitz did pre-test but fortunately ignored the reports that told them their ideas wouldn't work. And Apple, Dyson and Red Bull respectively, created revolutionary products and dominated entirely new categories.

Emotions assign value. Context creates meaning. These tests are not the real world. Disruptive ideas rarely pass because they’re benchmarked against norms of average old ideas, not revolutionary new ones. For example, the Red Bull test failed to measure the emotional value of wild parties and exciting sports to come, the future keys to the brand’s success.

We should not reject rationality. But we need to know its limits and place in the creative process. Because it’s crazy that a process designed to protect us from risk can be shooting us in the foot. And it’s irrational to expect innovation on one hand, only to kill it with the other.

Here are some initial thoughts to help nudge us forward.

Image: Flickr user Scott Granneman

Lead With Online Execution, Analyze On The Back-End

Intuitive leaps are not always right. But testing online provides an invaluable chance to gauge real behavior and apply logic after the fact, where it is most helpful. If you are not piloting disruptive ideas, beta testing versions of your offerings and A/B testing your messages, you are missing the most effective ways to innovate. When you measure actions not words, you are measuring the hidden emotions that drive responses.

Image: Flickr user Louise Docker

Shift From Evaluation To Illumination

Marketers are becoming out of touch with the real-life, flesh-and-blood needs and challenges of people. Most research is spent on testing and evaluating not empathizing and imagining. We need greater creative insight into improving human lives not just consumer sales. Behavioral science offers so much fertile ground yet woefully few farmers.

Image: Flickr user Jesse Freeman

Reinvent And Repurpose Concept/Copy Tests

Pretesting ideas will likely persist, so we need to revise methods to reflect how decisions and behavior change really happen. Fortunately, there is a process that I have discovered rooted in neuroscience (read about Van Praet's seven-step process, chronicled in a series of posts on this site, here). These tests should be tools not rules, aimed at inspiring creativity not forecasting sales.

Image: Flickr user Zach Dischner

Let Execution Inform Strategy

The industry standard for testing positioning concepts involves stripping them of emotional executional elements often in the form of “white card” concepts. The goal is to isolate the single functional benefit that best drives sales. This doesn’t make sense, nor does it work. It emphasizes the rational reasons to justify purchase, not the emotional motivation to buy in the first place. Art can teach science and ads can inform strategy.


Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a keynote speaker and founder of Unconscious Branding, a leading-edge brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from Unconscious Behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems. He has positioned some of the world’s most iconic brands through highly effective award winning campaigns at leading agencies and marketers in New York and Los Angeles.

[Image: Flickr user Zach Dischner]

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10 Comments

  • Nuno Bianchi

    Research is as infallible as the best creative thinking. What it does is to inform. For the good creative that operates within a market, it provides the potential of data-centered insights and new perspectives.

    The idea of human-centered everything is beautiful, but it completely ignores how well informed the creative individual is, and how much that individual is involved and in synch with the society he is creating for, and how well he knows other humans that compose it.

    The number of articles that say bad things about research in this past year is just amazing. And it always comes from a strictly creative standpoint, as if creative freedom is the only truth worth fighting for, and everything on it's way is evil. it's hard to find relevant voices talking about informed and educated creative decisions that were relevant in form, function, content and return BECAUSE of the correct interaction and good relationship between the racional and irracional parts of the process.

  • I couldn't agree more.

    Also, he hints at another problem that is far more serious than the lack of creativity. I think it lies in the fact that many companies make decisions based on the financial aspect alone - waiting for the quarterly reports to come in.

    They don't want to invest or take risks that might address other core issues like quality, time, and productivity. You won't see the instant results from those. They take data, time and statistical analysis to understand. Which I am sure Apple or any engineer for that matter knows all too well... but it gets overlooked because we are concerned with short term profits instead of better decision making based on the numbers.

    We should be making more decisions around sound data. You take emotion out of it because it's a faulty mechanism. Just because you have a craving for buttery sweet popcorn doesn't make it a good idea.

  • Nuno Bianchi

    Plus, (in my experience, at least) if you are creating for a client that operates within a market, rather than just making art... and the faintest proximity to data can kill your idea or twist it beyond recognition... it was not an idea worth pursuing to begin with...

  • Very interesting! But I have a question.

    If I understand correctly, your thesis is that people should let emotion and their unconscious drive innovation though creativity. And that makes sense for creative, visionary leaders such as Jobs, Dyson, etc. They are/were running companies, they have/had creative vision, they are/were willing to take risks.

    Within an organisation, however, I expect many employees' (including decision making managers) emotions would be driven by self interest and status quo bias. This would presumably lead them to reject breakthrough ideas in favour of incremental improvement ideas that would be safer from a personal perspective than would be a radical innovation idea which might benefit the company, but shake up things internally.

    In fact, research by University of Pennsylvania and Cornell seems to back this up. (http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1457&context=articles)

    What do you think?

    Jeffrey Baumgartner

  • Barry Quinn

    The primacy of rational analysis is reflected in the abysmal failure rates of these tests. Most ideas that pass, go on to fail in market--about 80% of the new products launched in the US.

    • We need to change the perception that "research" is infallible and the opinion, intuition and work of creative problem solvers is "less valuable" and "less informed".