Intuition's role in creativity and innovation is indispensable. Yet people frequently discount its value. "It's only a hunch," you've probably said more than once, or, "I'm not going to play any hunches."

Not trusting your hunches may actually impair your ability to make good business decisions. Research shows that business success depends to a large extent on the ability and willingness to make intuitive decisions, frequently with incomplete information and data. For small business people in particular, intuition, combined with the courage to take risks, can be a critical factor in the success of their companies.

John Mihalasky, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has tested hundreds of business executives for intuitive ability, and he reports that effective, superior decision making does indeed correlate highly with intuitive ability.

In one experiment Mihalasky chose 25 chief executive officers who had held top positions for at least five years in their companies. All came from manufacturing companies with less than $50 million in annual sales. In general, those who scored highest on the intuitive test also reported the greatest increase in company profits. In fact, the high scorer was also the top profit maker, and his company's annual sales had increased from $1.3 million to $19.4 million.

"The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion -- these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work," says Jerome S. Bruner, visiting scholar in psychology and social relations at Harvard University. Certainly, the history of technology and innovation provides proof that the ideas that were responsible for great breakthroughs came from intuitive perceptions that were only later tested and verified. Take, for example, the case of George I. Long, former president of Ampex Corp.

When Long recognized that a product permitting the transcription of TV programs for distribution and rebroadcast had the potential to tap a huge market, others felt that the technical difficulties were too great. They were dubious about the potential market value of the product and considered Ampex too small to tackle the problem. But Long's hunch about the success of the product was so strong that he left another company to come to Ampex. The hunch paid off: Videotape established Ampex as an early leader in a now booming industry.

But good hunches are not the monopoly of an elite few, like Edwin Land who followed his hunch that the Polariod camera would sell despite the ominous forecasts of market surveys. We all know what it feels like when a hunch is born, but often we doubt the trustworthiness of our hunches or we don't have the guts to follow through on our insights.

Although hunches can be validated only when acted upon, there are ways to develop our intuitive ability and to generate more valid hunches:

1. Get the facts. If you're familiar with your business or a particular subject, you're much more likely to intuitively reach an appropriate decision or solution to a problem. Long knew TV; Land knew photography. Take the time to dig up available facts and information.

2. Watch out for self-deception. If a hunch turns out to be wildly wrong, chances are it emerged from wishful or fearful thinking, not from intuition. Be willing to confront your fears and to accept things as they are. That allows intuition to function more freely.

3. Keep a record. Diary-keeping is the best way to check whether you have genuine intuitive hunches or mainly wishful projections. If you discover that many of your hunches are inaccurate, take stock and try to learn how your personal interests or anxieties distort your perceptions. Jotting down your insights also helps you retain those ideas that often evaporate the moment the phone rings or an impromptu meeting is called.

4. Combine intuition and analysis. Scientific research shows that the two hemispheres of the human brain process different kinds of information. In most people, the left side controls the analytical, linear, and verbal processes; the right, the intuitive, nonlinear, and nonverbal thought. Effective problem solvers, scientists say, couple the right brain processes with the left. They transpose intuition into logical order before implementing ideas.

5. Be patient and don't "force" solutions. Often the intuitive hunch comes in a flash when the problem is put aside. "Sleeping on it" provides time for ideas to incubate. Many creative people report they find solutions to apparently intractable problems during periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity. Drawing, music, exercise, and other forms of nonverbal expression provide excellent ways to activate intuition.

6. Don't brush aside your hunches. Intuition is not irrational or unnatural, but a normal function of the brain that is probably not related to clairvoyance, mystical precognition, or similar phenomena.R. Buckminster Fuller, developer of the geodesic dome, called intuition "cosmic fishing."

"You feel a nibble," he said. "Then you've got to hook the fish. Too many people get a hunch, then light up a cigarette and forget about it." Intuition is no good without the courage to implement a decision based on it.