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Intuition in Engineering: How You can Become an Intuitive Engineer

What is Intuition?

Intuition is hard to define, but everybody knows it from personal experience. It is a feeling of “knowing without thinking”, like an answer coming from the subconscious mind, even before the conscious mind has formulated the question. It is also called a “gut feeling”.

Can Engineers Trust their Intuition?

Engineers have to work rationally. They have to find solutions for technical problems. This requires a lot of technical knowledge, expertise, teamwork and discipline. An engineer produces technical solutions and has to prove that they work. It seems there is no place for intuition in the domain of the conscious mind.

But is this true? Let’s have a closer look at the workings of our subconscious mind.

How Intuition Works

Psychologists have been studiying intuition for some time now. The bestselling author Daniel Kahneman describes the results of this research in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [1]. In the book, he describes how intuition works and when it can be trusted.

Intuition is a tool that yields astonishing results in certain situations – and fails miserably in others. The real trick is to know when you can trust your intuition.

The studies cited by Mr. Kahneman found two conditions for intuition to yield correct results:

  1. You have a lot of knowledge in a given field.
  2. The field can be learned. This means that it is governed by a set of rules that don’t change drastically over time. For instance, the rules of chess are the same in every game. But the rules of the stock market – if there are any – change every day.

This means that an experienced chess player can trust his intuition. When he looks at a chess setting, he might have a hunch about which move is the best, and he will most likely be right. But a stockbroker, no matter how experienced he is, should not trust his guts. He might have an intuition about which stock to buy. But he should not rely on it, as the stock market cannot be learned. If he trusts his intuition only, he will likely lose his money.

These findings prove that intuition can be a powerful tool. It can give you important insights in the blink of an eye, but you need to know if you can use them.

Intuition in Engineering

Does this research mean that engineers can start trusting their guts? It does indeed, due to the nature of engineering problems. Engineering is learnable. The rules of physics don’t change from one day to the other. And software systems behave more or less the same every day once they have reached a stable development phase. Thus the second condition for a reliable intuition is fulfilled.

You also need experience in your given field to fulfill condition number one. You will need to know the rules that govern your field of engineering. And you should be experienced in the system that you are working on. The more experience you gather, the more accurate your intuitions will become.

So if you are an experienced engineer, you can take your intuitions seriously. This is especially useful when you have to locate an error in a complex system. When it is not obvious where to look for an error, listen to your gut. You might be supprised how often it gave you the correct clue in a second. My personal experience is that when I know a system very well and I receive an error report, I can often point at the part of the system where the error is located just by looking at the error description. Most of the times, my assessment is correct. As errors often have to be located under time pressure, your intuition can help you to get your job done quickly.

Intuition is also helpful when designing a new system. The space of possible solutions is often almost endless. In these situations, we have to rely on heuristics to find a starting point. With some experience, you can recruit your intution to find a starting point. Once you have it, start working out a solution from there. Then examine the solution with your rational engineering skills or review it with your colleagues. The more often you do this, the more experience you accumulate, which will make your intuitions even more accurate the next time.

A master of intuitive engineering was inventor Nikola Tesla. After studying physics and electrical engineering for several years, he could conduct experiments in his mind. Whenever he was working on a problem, he would often reach a point where his intuition told him that he had found the solution without exactly knowing what it was. Then he would work out the solution that was hidden inside his subconscious mind. His intuition helped him make inventions such as the AC motor, rotary current and the radio [2].


Psychological research proves that intuition is a powerful “feature” of our mind. It can be especially useful for engineers. This is a very important finding, because we – engineers – like to describe ourselves as logical and rational. We should accept intuition as a versatile tool in our mental toolbox. When you have mastered it, it can give you accurate results very quickly. Start using it by going with your instincts in a low risk situation. Examine the results to learn when you can trust your guts. Only then will you be able to make decisions quickly using your intuition when the stakes are high.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman. ISBN 0374275637
2. Nikola Tesla. Eine Biographie. Margret Cheney. ISBN 3930243016

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