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August 23, 2011
Verify Your Intuition
In today’s highly competitive, fast-paced, volatile work world, employees are constantly being called upon to make decisions, often almost instantly. As a result, today’s workers rely heavily upon their intuition. There’s no doubt that intuitive thinking can be astonishingly effective for decision making. Intuition, in fact, is often described in almost mystical terms because of its contributions. Poker players have a sixth sense, good mechanics just know, and ballet dancers feel their steps. Examples like these lead most of us to believe that we can rely completely upon our intuition in making most any kind of decision.
But truthfully, your gut is way overrated. Don’t trust it. As Cambridge elite Michael Schrage (MIT) puts it, your gut deserves skeptical vigilance. Sorry, but your gut instinct and gut feelings will betray you. Instead, the key to smart use of intuition is to follow President Reagan’s rule for working with the Soviets: Trust, but verify, with a strong emphasis on “verify.”
What Is Intuition?
“Gut feeling” or “intuition” is a judgment that comes very fast when we’re faced with a problem. We don’t know why we have this feeling. And we don’t fully know where the insight comes from. It’s just automatically there. Just something you know. Yet the feeling is strong enough to cause us to act on it.
Research has shown that intuition is a set of “rules of thumb,” or patterns based on years of experience. When certain cues based on old “rules” or “patterns” are presented to us, intuition, “gut feelings” or instincts flash into the gray matter with resolutions.
If we lack experience in a subject, we won’t have those intuitive insights. For example, I’m not a rocket scientist, so if you ask me about rockets or flight problems, no flashes of insight will surface. But in contrast, if you ask me about human behavior and coaching, which I’ve studied and practiced for 50 years, I’ve got lots of rules of thumb — patterns that automatically flash to cues. Information and solutions to a behavioral problem are often just there. But…I still defer strongly to evidence.
Problems With Intuition
A huge body of systematic research tells us how intuition works, and also how it doesn’t work.
  • Intuition takes years of experience and study to develop. Experience is the one differentiator for effective intuition. Research has shown that it takes approximately ten years to develop trusted intuition. Expert chess players typically have passed the 10,000 hour threshold of experience. That’s why I was so appreciative of one recent MBA grad who was hired as COO for an architectural client. The managing partner kept telling him to “go with his gut.” “I don’t have any gut insights (intuition) to go with,” he kept telling his boss. He lacked the experience for the development of useful management patterns and he was smart enough to know it.
  • Intuition only works well in environments that provide “valid” cues and rapid feedback. The environment must have a degree of regularity for a cue to be considered valid. Games such as bridge or poker are highly valid, while long-term weather forecasting and stock trading lack validity. The huge scale of weather environments and stock environments and the lack of recognizable patterns in the two make intuitional judgments difficult, even impossible. 
  • Intuition is fast, but reasoning is slow.  This is obvious, but still very important. The rapidity of changes in today’s work environment makes intuition a highly rewarded skill. It’s seductive, leading us to ignore its weaknesses.
  • We apply intuition inconsistently. Even experts apply what they know inconsistently.
  • Our biases powerfully impact intuition, leading to bad judgments.
  • To quote MIT’s Andrew McAfee, we have lousy intuition about our intuition. There’s no way for us to tell whether a spontaneous idea is expert intuition or a dumb bias. 
My conclusion from all this research and much more that I’ve looked at is that intuition is dangerous territory. Once more: Intuition is vastly overrated and used far too often. Real experts seem to know what they don’t know. But those lacking expertise (and they may not know they lack expertise) certainly don’t know what they don’t know. Subjective confidence is therefore a very unreliable indication of the validity of our intuitive judgments and decisions.
What Works Better Than Intuition?
There’s a terrific amount of evidence revealing that systematically collected data and mathematical models can outperform our very human, intuitive judgments. A systematic analysis of 136 studies that compared human to statistical (analytical or research-based) judgments found that the preponderance of data favored the statistical and systematic data approach to important decision making. Sixty-five of the studies failed to find a significant difference between human judgment and systematic prediction. Sixty-three of the studies found that evidence-based (statistics, etc.) were significantly better predictors of the case at hand. Only eight (yep, just eight) of the studies found that people were better predictors.  There’s a large toolkit of statistical techniques that are actually designed to find patterns in huge masses of data — even when it’s messy data. This makes it possible to deliver “best guesses about cause-and-effect” relationships. Quoting Andrew McAfee’s report, If you’re keeping score, that’s just under a 6% win rate for the people and their intuition and a 46% rate of clear losses.
How to Control the Quality of Your Decisions
Although there are a large number of ways to vet any decision, I regularly start with four key questions.
  • Is my self-interest or the self-interest of others driving this decision? No question that people can lie with statistics and most any kind of evidence and reasoning. Indeed, I’ve been told by my astute protégé that I’m exceptionally good at lining up data for my own objectives. He once commented with a smirk that I have a statistic for everything. I agreed with him on both. Still, if the decision is important to my thinking, my well-being or my future, I’m very cautious about the issues of self-interest. Self-interest can readily sabotage decision making. Like most people I can fall blindly in love with a decision — and miss the inherent problems.
  • Are there dissenting opinions on this issue? Are there other ways of looking at this decision, and does the team or colleagues dissent on their conclusions? The absence of dissension on a complex issue is a red flag. It’s nearly impossible for four or five people to agree on a complex issue.
  • Have credible alternatives been considered? That’s usually my first thought. It sounds like this: How else can we look at this problem? Am I thinking about it the best way? What alternative data have we missed?
  • If I had to make this decision again in a year, what info would I want and how can I get more of it now? I’ve just begun to look at this question and found that it can be exceptionally useful. My intuitive mind readily constructs a story based on the evidence at hand, but asking this question gives me a bit more light.
So what’s in it for you to revise your thinking about intuition and set it aside 95% of the time?
As a result of a more evidence-based focus, I’ve found that my decision batting average has gone up significantly. As a coach and mentor, evidence-based thinking has given me far better insights for working with clients and helping them to resolve their issues. In addition, as I’ve gradually become more and more familiar with evidence-based thinking, I’m a much more critical and intelligent recipient of political and economic comment. I’m no conservative Republican, but Reagan really was very accurate in his approach to decision making: Trust, but verify. I’d put it more strongly. If the decision is significant, put 95% of your input into verification.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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