‘Rely more on intuition and less on statistics’

Bernadette Jiwa, author of Hunch, about the power of intuition

Bernadette Jiwa, bestselling author and consultant, urges leaders to rely less on statistics and more on intuition if they’re to make consistently good choices

Statisticians placed Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the 2016 US presidential election at between 70 per cent and 99 per cent. Opinion polls before the Brexit referendum indicated that the UK would vote to remain in the EU. And, in the days leading up to June’s general election, eminent psephologists were forecasting that the Conservatives would win by a landslide.

It’s clear that the figures are not always to be trusted. Yet, in this increasingly data-saturated world, businesses are still putting their faith firmly in them. The result, according to consultant and author Bernadette Jiwa, is often a failure to recognise the opportunities that are all around us.

“Where is the data that predicted the need for Google or the iPhone, or forecast the 250 per cent rise in almond milk sales in the US over the past five years?” she says. “By paying attention only to algorithmic data, because we think it’s proof [that an idea will work] or that it’s going to help us mitigate risk, we’re missing what’s under our noses.”

Jiwa, who has advised Fortune 500 companies and consumer brands such as Adidas, Electronic Arts and Zappos, believes that businesses are using data as a crutch with which to prop up poor products and services that consumers neither need nor want. Her latest book, Hunch: Turn your everyday insights into the next big thing, sets out to change the way in which leaders generate ideas by saying goodbye to “fact” and reconnecting with their intuition.

“We can poll 1,000 people and get some kind of answer, but we still don’t know whether it’s the right one. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump are great examples of predictions going awry,” she says. “Data can sometimes give a false positive, so we need to think about trusting our intuition and being more curious, empathetic and imaginative in order to recognise the opportunities to innovate and create value. It’s not only about trying to make people love our products and services once they’re out in the world; it’s also about building consumer value into the business from the start.”

Jiwa, a Dubliner who now lives in Melbourne (“the world’s most liveable city”), observes that Google Glass and New Coke failed as products because they proved to be of little value to consumers. “Sometimes entrepreneurs come out with an idea that they think everybody will love, because the data is seemingly stacked in its favour, instead of having connected it to an unmet need they’ve actually observed,” she says.

Coming up with the next big thing, Jiwa argues, doesn’t require you to have big data at your fingertips. Ideas start with the ability to recognise patterns of practice (“what is”) and understand the potential (“what could be”). This mix of insight and foresight is what she calls a hunch – something that needs to be worked on.

She cites businesses such as Airbnb, Spanx and Dollar Shave Club (a razor subscription service in the US) that spotted a problem – flaws in an industry’s prevailing business model and a frustrating customer experience – and created a solution. “Like many disruptive companies, Dollar Shave Club created a compelling product, innovative business model and viral marketing campaign simply by understanding customers’ pain points,” Jiwa says. “We find opportunities when we look for problems to solve by asking two questions: ‘What’s happening that shouldn’t be? And what’s not happening that should be?’”

She continues: “In Dollar Shave Club’s case, the answers were clear. The market was dominated by a few long-established brands that had no direct relationships with their customers, who were paying a lot for technology they didn’t need. Buying expensive blades didn’t necessarily guarantee a better shave, while the process of shopping for razors and replacing blades wasn’t as convenient as it could be. The start-up disrupted the market by addressing these problems and in three years it was acquired by Unilever for $1bn (£780m).”

Bernadette Jiwa: 'rely on intuition'

How to cultivate your intuition

So how can business leaders develop their intuition? “The people who have the best hunches are those who intentionally develop their curiosity, empathy and imagination. These are the three qualities you want people in your organisation to cultivate,” Jiwa argues. But where to start? “First of all, let go of the need for certainty. You have to give yourself and your employees permission to fail – and even reward failure.”

She points to the Boston Consulting Group’s The Most Innovative Companies 2015 study, which concluded that R&D is by nature a learning enterprise in which the freedom to follow untested hypotheses is crucial. The most innovative companies create an environment in which people feel comfortable with uncertainty, according to the research report.

While this brings to mind quirky initiatives such as Google’s Alphabet – the problem-solving lab that “makes progress by making mistakes” – Jiwa is convinced that lavishly resourced R&D units aren’t necessary for this exercise. Indeed, they can even be detrimental to the process, she argues.

“Sometimes having lots of resources leads you down a different track. Sony could have invented the GoPro camera, for instance, but it took a surfer to realise that unmet need,” she says. “Being in a smaller company often means that you’re closer to what’s going on in the real world. The opportunity is there for everybody.”

She continues: “There is no exact science for creating breakthrough ideas – otherwise, everyone would be having them. But to recognise opportunity you have to make time to work out what’s important to your business and what problems you want to solve. Steve Jobs was what I call a first-class ‘noticer’. He really paid attention to what was going in the world beyond Apple. The same now applies to Jeff Bezos at Amazon.”

Great business ideas, according to Jiwa, start with questions that we feel intuitively compelled to answer. “Genius isn’t reserved for PhDs and it’s not about crystal-ball-gazing,” she says. “The best entrepreneurs are simply ordinary people who spotted an opportunity.”

Bernadette Jiwa CV

Born Dublin

Education Presentation College, Dublin


2006 After serving in various management roles at Graham O’Sullivan Hospitality in Ireland, Jiwa moves to Australia and starts a career in business coaching

2011 Establishes strategy consultancy The Story of Telling

2012 Writes first bestseller, Make Your Idea Matter, and speaks at TEDxPerth

2015 Creates online education programme the Story Strategy, which teaches the concepts of her fifth book, Meaningful: The story of ideas that fly

2016 SmartCompany magazine names Jiwa’s blog, thestoryoftelling.com, as Australia’s best business blog

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About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Until she left the magazine in August 2019, Hannah Gresty was the assistant editor of Director. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team as editorial assistant in 2016.

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