What is Instinct?—Part 1:

A few years ago, I was giving a presentation on memes to a room full of executive search consultants, some of whom had over 20 years of experience placing presidents and senior executives into leadership positions. I asked this room of almost 30 consultants, “In your experience, what is the one quality that matters the most for a leader to be successful?” Twenty hands went up, and when I asked them to share their answers, to a person each one said, “Instinct”. I was quite struck by this, and it stayed with me.

Instinct, they said. Not education, or IQ. Not subject matter expertise. Not eloquent speaking abilities. Nor superior social skills per se. But instinct. Successful leaders have strong instincts, and trust them. They may examine the facts and ask for counsel from trusted advisors, but rarely do they second-guess themselves once their instinct kicks in. And the more they practice the use of good instincts, the better it gets.

Instinct, and its related term “intuition”, is an ability that isn’t well understood, and is a new frontier for neuropsychology. But those of us who are marketers, strategists and/or leaders, are using this ability, often consciously, nearly every day. Where does it come from? Can we trust it? What can we use it for reliably?

I have no simple answers to this, but I bring up the questions because so many clients and agency teams I’ve worked with are looking for certainty, and more often than not, look to means such as quantitative data (either on past behavior or stated individual preference) to shore up their sense of rightness. After all, product launches, campaigns, marketing plans – are expensive and there’s a lot of pressure put on the people who design and lead them. So it seems irresponsible, perhaps, to base one’s decisions on mere instinct, when proof is warranted.

But here’s the rub:  You can never predict with consistent accuracy exactly how the public is going to respond to anything. There’s no such thing as irrefutable proof that something will work. Otherwise, the majority of “viral videos” ever made, would in fact go viral, which they do not. Or the vast majority of political polls would accurately predict how people are going to vote, which they certainly do not.

So, short of doing a sales pitch for the methodology we use to find the naturally repeatable ideas that pertain to a brand, company or product (the Structural Mapping Process used by our sister company Scientific Intelligence), I would offer up a good working definition of one type of instinct:  Pattern recognition. The ability to observe a series of observations or phenomena and glean an important underlying pattern that’s at work.

In next week’s post, we’ll explore this further and provide an example or two, to get our wheels turning…