Strategies and tactics to access intuition: a look at the moment of solution

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Virginia Tech

This qualitative case study addressed the question, “What strategies and tactics do people use to access intuition in solving complex, ill-structured problems?” Such problems are not routine, well-defined, or solved by immediate application of well-known procedures or decision rules. A comprehensive literature review revealed a paucity of empirical data on accessing intuition during problem solving. Additionally, while some posited a relationship between ill-structured problems and intuitions, no studies existed linking the two.

This study explored people’s specific actions at the moment when an overall solution becomes apparent to the problem solver. It focused on both the conscious actions people take to access their intuition (strategies) and on the conscious or unconscious skills, clusters of related skills, or procedures (tactics) they use (Gerber, 1983), as well as underlying tacit processes (Fischbein, 1987). Participants were 11 human resource managers. This group was chosen because its members frequently encounter complex, ill-structured problems or help others focus on how to solve such problems. Specific individuals were recommended by colleagues who considered them to be articulate and interested in intuition. They completed journals to document the moment of solution and participated in follow-up, in-depth interviews. To ensure internal validity, participants acted in the role of “co-researchers.” They reviewed manuscripts, journals, and interviews for accuracy and reviewed written narratives to ensure that their statements had been understood. Two corraborated the process of category construction.

A qualitative content analysis of journal results indicated that in seven instances intuitions occurred when participants were with others and that these seven were listening in some fashion at the moment of solution. Further analysis, which incorporated the interviews, indicated that actions most frequently taken at the moment of intuition included immersion, searching, thinking—working on task, undirected thinking, making connections, and listening. Whether a given action was a Strategy, tactic, or tacit process depended on how deliberately people acted and how aware they were of their actions. Results also showed that problems were ill-structured and that intuitions had characteristics consistent with those identified by Fischbein (1987). Finally, the study found that, for the participants in this case study, the dynamics of intuition can be summed up with the following proposition: A propelling concern to solve a complex problem leads to continuous search and spontaneous combustion.

Implications for future research suggest the need for a conceptual framework for studying intuition; extended research in the workplace and other settings, examining especially instances when people are with others at the moment of solution; a more in-depth investigation of actions to access intuition, focusing on specific actions such as listening as well as the sequencing of all actions; and inquiry into how people’s values and beliefs affect their actions. It is recommended that practitioners join in research efforts as well as engage learners in an exploration of their own actions to access intuition during problem solving.