CIPD Podcast 90 - What neuroscience tells us about insight, intuition and creativity

Date: 07/05/2014 Duration:00:19:28

In this podcast we explore the work of Professor Eugene Sadler-Smith, who researches and writes on insight, intuition and creativity. Eugene talks us through the meaning and processes behind insight and intuition, and what cognitive science tells us about ideation and problem solving.
We also speak to Jan Hills, founder and partner of Head Heart + Brain, about her organisation’s science-based approach to leadership and HR capability. Previously the COO at an investment bank, Jan now uses neuroleadership ideas in her change work with organisations, and explains to us why this approach often goes down well with business leaders, and how it can help to foster innovation.
Ruth Stuart, the CIPD’s Research Adviser in L&D, also joins us. Ruth discuss the impact that neuroscience insights on creativity and learning can have on workplaces and people management, and tells us more about the CIPD’s current and upcoming research in this area.
Ruth is currently looking for case study candidates for her research on L&D and neuroscience. If your organisation is using neuroscience learnings to inform the way you deliver training or another aspect of the way you work, please contact her on, or tweet @RStuartCIPD.

Further reading

Professor Eugene Sadler-Smith is the author of the CIPD report ‘Insight and intuition’, which CIPD members can download for free from the website. This is one of three recent CIPD reports on ‘fresh thinking in learning and development’, each written in a collaboration with an expert. This new thinking embraces emerging models from neuroscience, cognitive research and behavioural science. The other reports are ‘Neuroscience and learning’ and ‘Cognition, decision and expertise’, and are also available on the site to members. The groundwork for these reports was laid in the 2012 CIPD report ‘From steady state to ready state: a need for fresh thinking in learning and talent development?’


Jan Hills : Organisations that are in a situation where what has worked in the past is no longer working are not going to solve those problems by doing the things that they always used to do and neuroscience gives you something different, gives you a different data, gives you different evidence base and again for sceptical intelligent leaders it gives them the why.

Philippa Lamb: That was Jan Hills, founder of the consultancy Head Heart + Brain who spoke to me recently about the key role neuroscience plays in a variety of issues in the workplace. But what can neuroscience really have to do with HR management and if there are clear cut benefits to business why aren’t employers making more of them? These aren’t new questions. Back in 2012 the CIPD published the Learning and Talent Development Survey and it highlighted just how little most employers understood about emerging thinking from neuroscience, cognitive research and the behavioural sciences generally. And now the CIPD has published three reports exploring the potential that scientific thinking could have specifically for learning and development. Eugene Sadler-Smith is Professor of Organisational Behaviour, at the University of Surrey and his new work on insight, intuition and creativity forms one of the three reports but what exactly does he mean by insight and intuition?

Eugene Sadler-Smith: Intuitions are effectively charged judgements that arise rapidly, non-consciously, through holistic associations. Now there's a lot in there but it’s a complex construct and that definition I think captures them all.

PL: So just to make sure I've got my head round this we’re talking about that little random flash that pops into your head for no good reason you can think about?

ES-S: Well yes and no. It pops into some people’s heads, for other people it pops into other parts of their body. So people talk about gut feeling and if you ask people to point to where it is they’re point to different portions of their anatomy, but it is it’s that signal that pops into conscious awareness, and I think if we call it conscious awareness that covers all the possibilities of in the gut, in the head, or wherever it might be - in the chest.

PL: So it’s a realisation?

ES-S: It’s not a realisation no because insight is a realisation, intuition is more of a sense. For me the key difference is this, with an intuition I cannot put the sense that I have into a literal expression, it can only be expressed metaphorically or in terms of emotion affect. Insight on the other hand is for me, literally, seeing into the problem, seeing inside the problem, connecting up the dots and being able to articulate the solution to the problem.

PL: And Professor Sadler-Smith had a great example to help illustrate the concepts of insight and intuition.

ES-S: So if insight is about connecting together dots then intuition is about recognising patterns. If we go back in the intuition research 30, 40 years, Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon did research on chess experts and he was fascinated about how chess experts make their moves in games and it turns out from Simon’s research that their approach isn’t the kind of analytical approach we’d expect it to be but it’s more intuitive. But it’s an intuition that's based on pattern recognition and Simon’s estimate was that a chess expert has in her or his long-term memory 50,000 patterns built up over 10,000 hours of practice. So this kind of 10,000 hours or ten year rule makes a lot of sense because over that timespan it’s possible to build up lots and lots of patterns and if intuition is about holistic associations which is effectively pattern recognition then when one sees a particular, let’s say, constellation of cues in a situation, be it the interview situation or whatever, then the process of intuition somehow matches the cues to the pattern and arrives at a judgement and experts can often arrive at a judgement but not actually say how they arrived at a judgement. So that takes us back to this old unsatisfactory definition which in some ways works. They know but sometimes they don’t know how they know.

PL: Of course it’s all very well understanding what insight and intuition are but don’t you need considerable expertise to really harness their benefits. What we haven’t really talked about is this idea that you need to bring expertise to the table first don’t you to maximise this, which sounds obvious but actually it isn’t is it there's more to it?

ES-S: Expertise is important I think in intuition and in insight. So if we take insight first of all if insight is about connecting dots together then if you've not got the dots in the first place to connect together then it’s quite difficult to do that. So this idea of naivety and creativity I'm not convinced by that argument because I think if we look at the history of scientific discovery and creativity in the arts what do we see? We see people who are deeply immersed in their field from a very early age. So you take your Steve Jobs, your Bill Gates, they were immersed in the emergent technology from their teens, so they were experts by the time they were 25, if you say the ten year rule for expertise, so by that time you've got all the dots, or many of the dots that can then be joined together.

PL: And this is an important point isn’t it because I think when people hear us talking about insight, intuition, it all sounds a bit woolly, it all sounds a bit the easy way to get somewhere but actually it’s not that at all is it because you’re saying you do need expertise, you do need to put in the hard graft, they put yourself in a place where you can add this additional ingredient which will take you to the next level.

ES-S: Yeah it takes you to the next level and it is about hard graft. So if we take intuition as another example alongside insight, so for insight you need the dots to be able to join them together, for intuition – intuition is about pattern recognition. So in my definition I talked about the holistic associations and that means pulling together lots of separate pieces of information, parallel processing it and coming up with a judgement.

PL: So as you develop expertise and experience within your profession you simultaneously develop a capacity for insight and intuition. But we’ve all had gut feelings that turned out to be wrong so you also need tools to identify which ones are the ones you should act on.

ES-S: We’ve all had gut feelings that haven’t worked. So the famous quote from Bill Gates is when CNN asked him does he use his intuition and he admitted readily to the fact that he uses his intuition but the interesting thing that Bill Gates said was he admits that sometimes it is wrong but he knows that his, and this is my phrase, his ‘batting average’ is good enough that if he keeps swinging he’ll hit the ball more than he misses the ball. Intuition is powerful and it can be a very useful decision-making tool for managers and for all of us in our personal and professional lives, but intuition is also perilous and used incorrectly or in the wrong hands it can be dangerous because one of the things we need to be aware of is not confusing it with bias, prejudice, wishful thinking, fear, the list could go on. I mean we know from recruitment and selection research that in selection interviews we tend to favour candidates who we perceive as being like ourselves. Now that's not an intuition, that's a bias. Part of the skill of developing intuition is being so self-aware that you’re able to say, “Hang on this isn’t an intuition this is me being biased, or this is me wishing for an outcome that I dearly hope for against all of the odds.” It’s an art I think.

PL: It’s a subtle art isn’t it and one that we can't expect to be too quantifiable and one where we need to be very self-aware and self-critical. So this is a sophisticated tool isn’t it?

ES-S: It’s a very powerful, it’s a very sophisticated tool because we need to be, as you've said, self-aware and self-critical. I think if we are both of those things we can hone good intuition. One of the things that we can do is surround ourselves with people who are likely to be nay sayers and challenge us. So the chief executive, one of the things that a chief executive should not do if he or she wants to build good intuitions is surround him or herself with an echo chamber…

PL: Yes men and yes women.

ES-S: …of their own making. But to surround them or at least have in their senior management team some nay sayers.

PL: Ruth Stuart is research adviser for L&D at the CIPD. I asked her why understanding this sort of thinking is important from the CIPD’s point of view.
Ruth Stuart: When we look at concepts like neuroscience or concepts relating to neuroscience like intuition and insight what they really give us is a fresh perspective on learning and the learning process, and not just learning but all aspects of HR management. So these ideas really do contribute to new thinking around how we approach rewards, how we approach change management or how people learn in the workplace. There's such a vast spectrum of new insight and new ideas out there that we can really learn from.

PL: And Ruth gave me her key points to take from Professor Sadler-Smith’s research.

RS: I think the key point for me from his research is really around understanding the insight process and how we gain insight and how we come up with new ideas. So often things will just come into our mind and we might not have any knowledge of the process behind it. We have that ‘ah-ha’ moment when we find the solution but we don’t necessarily know the steps that have happened before that and what Professor Eugene’s research really does is tell us how it works, so gives us a really clear step by step process for ideation and insight generation really work and that gives us more self-awareness, if we know how it works we can really understand the process that are at play.

PL: Earlier we heard from Jan Hills, the founding partner of Head Heart + Brain. As she explained the consultancy works with the head – the cognitive rational content, the heart – the emotional content, and the brain, using the latest findings from neuroscience. And if any of that is sounding a touch fluffy to some of you, you might be interested to hear that before she set up Head Heart + Brain Jan was chief operating officer for an investment bank. So with that background in mind I asked her how she came to believe that neuroscience has a role to play in raising organisation performance and maximising the bottom line. So you've a very hard-headed business person what drew you to this thought about neuroscience because I know you have a qualification don’t you in neuro-leadership?

JH: Yes I do I was one of the first group of people to go through that programme. I guess most of these things are a journey aren’t they so I started off a very hard-headed businessperson and there's nothing more different than actually getting investment bankers to listen to things about change and their own self-awareness and that kind of led me down a route of saying, “Well how can you actually make this real for people, give them some real tools that help them with the way they understand themselves and understand their followers. So that led me to actually neuro-linguistic programming which a lot of people get muddled up with neuroscience, being involved in that gives you a fantastic toolkit really but the neuroscience attracted me because it started to tell us why neurolinguistic programming works. And as I got more into it I found that it tells very sceptical leaders about why doing what we traditionally call ‘soft skills’ works. And that seems to take away quite a lot of their resistance.

PL: After speaking to Professor Sadler-Smith I was interested to find out exactly how this neuroscientific thinking is put into practice on the ground and I asked Jan how it plays into creativity and innovation.

JH: I guess the way I think about it is it kind of gives you a meta level of understanding about those things. So we know creativity is a process that it’s not something that some people are gifted at and other people aren’t. the whole left brain/right brain theory in terms of creativity has largely been discredited but what I think the neuroscience gives you is how the different elements of the creative process actually happen and therefore what the implications are for how you need to set your business up, set yourself up, set your team up, to have more chance of quality creativity happening.

PL: So creating an environment where you’re going to enhance your chances?

JH: Exactly yeah.

PL: And here’s an example from Jan of something very simple you can do to use these tools to harness creativity in your own organisation.

JH: One of the things that we do with leaders is use a process called the Disney Imagineering Process and the reason we use that is Disney kind of knew how the brain worked even if he didn’t actually look at the neuroscience. So what that process does is actually suggest that you go into a relaxed place, so a different room, and that you use that relaxed environment to create your ideas and there's even a physiology to it. So you lay back, you put your head back, you kind of flop around, you sit on comfortable cushions. All of those things help people to be in that mindset where they’re much more open to ideas and we know that when the brain is relaxed or when the body’s relaxed, when the brain is in a good mood, it sees things in a much more open, expansive way, rather than when you’re stressed or tense, where your literal sort of vision of something narrows.

PL: It’s a familiar idea and if it sounds like something that's strictly for Silicon Valley start-ups think again. This isn’t feel-good time wasting because there is, as Jan pointed out, hard science at play here.

JH: Hard science around people solve more problems when they’re in a good mood, when they're having fun. And hard science by a psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson has shown that the more positive experiences we have the more broadly we see the world and the more open we are to ideas. And those are just the sorts of patterns that you need to be creative.

PL: I asked Jan what sort of organisations are taking an interest in this scientific approach.

JH: What we’re finding is a lot of scepticism with HR people and a lot less with business managers. So the people who are coming to talk to us are really saying, “What we’re currently doing isn’t working and we know we need to do something else.” And because this gives people the answer to why things work they’re attracted to this. So our clients range very broadly from the Civil Service, I spent last week with 150 managers from the MOD looking at how the brain worked and what that means for change and the way they lead people; industry, so a lot of the retail industry, looking at how they engage people more and how they accelerate their development, through to HR functions, trying to help their business partners to be more solution-focused rather than problem-focused. So being able to ask powerful questions which create more insight in their clients.

PL: Hearing Jan remark that she's finding a great deal of scepticism in HR departments I asked Ruth Stuart, the CIPD’s research adviser for learning and development why she thought HRs might be reluctant to get involved and at least explore these ideas.

RS: I think there's a sense that people don’t feel they have enough knowledge yet. So some of these concepts are reasonably complex and they can be misinterpreted and perhaps people worry that if they talk about these ideas they might not get it 100% right; they might look silly in front of their board; they might not be able to explain it properly. 

PL: If you’d like to know more about the ideas we’ve discussed in this podcast and how you might use them to benefit your own organisation here’s Ruth Stuart on how to get started.

RS: A great start would be to have a read of the three reports we’ve recently published on fresh thinking and learning and development and we also have a report we published in 2012 called ‘From Ready State to Steady State’ and that was really introducing these concepts as well and looking at how HR and L&D professionals can use them in practice. If people are more interested they might want to consider one of the neuroscience workshops that we’ve got coming up and you can find out more about that on the CIPD website.

PL: And you’re going to be doing more research soon aren’t you? I know you’re looking for participants, people who are actually investigating this now?

RS: Yeah absolutely so we’re really wanting examples of organisations that are using ideas from neuroscience or other behavioural sciences and putting them into practice. We’d like to hear from organisations that are using it to change their approach to learning and development or leadership development or change management. We really want to know what’s working and why it’s working.

PL: Okay so if people would like to get involved how can they get in touch with you?

RS: I’d really love to hear from anybody that wants to get involved and my email address is and please do get in touch.

PL: And can people give you a call?

RS: Yeah absolutely if they go through the CIPD switchboard they can reach me there.

PL: So if your organisation is already using ideas taken from neuroscience and putting them into practice we’d love to hear about it because this is a subject we’ll be coming back to. You can get in touch with Ruth at or just give her a call through the CIPD switchboard.

That's it for this month. Join me next time.


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