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Sara Little Turnball - Icon and Master of Intuitive Decision Making

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of learning about Sara Little Turnball from my friend Alexa Adams. When I was reading how she worked with—General Mills, Corning, Procter & Gamble, and 3M—to name just a few of her long-term clients— I started to wonder what her process was to creating and inventing new ideas. The more I read about her, the more I recognized a similar pattern between her work to drive innovation and that of the intuitive cognitive processor.

What is intuitive cognitive processing?

Intuitive cognition involves unconscious situational pattern synthesis and recognition unconstrained by working memory limitations. Intuitive cognition is independent of conscious “executive” control, large in capacity, and fast. In other words, intuitive cognitive processing is the brain function wherein our intuition is absorbing a lot of data and then it is allowing us to process that data and make new understandings.

What is Sara Little Turnball's intuitive cognition style?

Little Turnball developed the precursor to the KN95 mask, a one-button radio and numerous other inventions that have changed the face of modern experiences: she even created CorningWare dishes!

But, how she did it is interesting. Sara Little Turnball followed a path that:

Metropolis magazine shared it this way: "To explain how her mind works, she tells the story of how years ago she solved a problem for “an international client in the food industry.” One of their most popular cake-mix products wasn’t selling in England. They dispatched her to London to find out why. Turnbull stayed at Claridge’s Hotel, doing intensive research—as she always does—frantically interviewing everyone from psychologists to pastry chefs. After ten days, she had not come up with much and had to admit that she had failed her mission. She packed her bags and booked herself on the next flight to New York. With an hour to kill before going to the airport, she decided to have a proper English high tea, something she hadn’t had time to do while at Claridge’s. Ordering pastries instead of the traditional cucumber sandwiches, Turnbull was surprised to be served a plate of tiny cakes—but no fork with which to eat them. Just as she was about to summon the waiter, an alarm went off in her head. “I suddenly realized that I had to take this incident seriously,” she recalls. “The moist-looking cakes were of a completely different texture from what I expected. They were finger food. This was the answer to my puzzle: the cake mix was all wrong—it had to be more like a cookie mix.”"

Sound familiar?

How to Innovate Is Largely Connected to How We Intuit

This path to innovation is the same pathway that researchers describe as both our creative cognition pathway and that is utilized for intuitive cognitive processing.

In other examples, Metropolis shared that "she is likely to tell you how she came up with the concept for a new baking-dish lid after observing in Kenya the way cheetahs use their paws to capture and hold their prey; or how she got the idea for a line of energizing bath towels from watching traditional weavers in Malaysia; or how, to design a burglar-proof lock, she first interviewed thieves behind bars—the real security experts."

Reading Is Not About Gathering the News, It's About Understanding the Path to Change

Sara Little Turnball's "intense curiosity led her to read five newspapers a day, though not necessarily for the day-to-day particulars. “I wasn’t reading the news, I was reading about change,” she says in A Life by Design. By looking at the world from this perspective, Sara developed fresh ways to see the everyday, then connected unlikely dots to make order out of the chaos.

The article continues that "If you went to Sara for a creative spark, she might have directed you to her research files, neatly organized around 375 sub-topics. “She might pull out a file that had nothing to do with anything you were thinking about, and you would have an aha moment,” says Larry Eisenbach, founder of Deadline Design Consultancy and board president of the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute. Her breakthroughs resulted from going out in the world and talking to people, linking unlikely ideas together, and applying human intuition. “There is serendipity in the creative process,” says Eisenbach. “It's not a linear thing.”

I couldn't agree more.

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