Intuitive Decision Making

Gut check,” “I just knew…,” “A woman’s intuition,” It’s no accident that these expressions are part of the daily vernacular. In life and in business, many of us believe firmly in the power of our intuition.

Myth? Fact? Somewhere in between? Can we rely on intuition when making important business decisions?

One reason the answer to this question remains murky is confusion about the meaning of intuition. Intuition is not instinct, insight, or pure emotion.

  • Instinct refers to a primal response such as fight or flight. This instinct was crucial to our survival in the wild 40,000 years ago and remains important today when it signals danger. Instinct is not, however, a sound basis for making complex business decisions.
  • Insight refers to a flash of genius (to coin a term from a movie by the same name), a shift in a completely new direction.
  • Emotion refers to reactions stemming from the limbic system, the feeling center of the human brain. Emotion alone is not intuition though, as explained below, it does play an important role in intuitive decision making

If intuition is not instinct, insight, or pure emotion, what is it? Psychologist Gary Klein defines intuition: “as the way we translate our experience into action. Our experience lets us recognize what is going on (making judgments) and how to react (making decisions). Because our experience enables us to recognize what to do, we can therefore make decisions rapidly and without conscious awareness or effort. We don’t have to deliberately think through the issues in order to arrive at good decisions.”*

In other words, deep experience in a specific arena allows us to grasp what is happening and take the appropriate action, almost without conscious effort. Klein illustrates this idea by citing the case of two nurses working in a neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU):

  • A new and inexperienced nurse missed signs of sepsis in an infant.
  • The seasoned nurse detected specific, albeit subtle, signs that suggested something was amiss. Based on twenty years as  NICU nurse, she concluded that the infant was suffering from sepsis. A formal diagnose confirmed her intuition. In short, she was right.

Intuition relies largely on pattern recognition. The result is what decision science scholar Karl Weick refers to as compressed expertise. As we gain experience and expertise in nursing, firefighting, or any field, we gain the ability to rely on our sense of what’s working well and where there is a problem.

As explained above, intuition is not equivalent to pure emotion. Scholar John Patton explains this critical distinction:

It is most important to recognize in this context, that the intuition of the emotion-driven leader is very different from the intuition of the expert. The latter’s behavior is a product of learning and experience and is largely adaptive; the former’s behavior is a response to more primitive urges and an emotion-narrowed span of attention. It can thus be inappropriate, more often than not. It would be dangerous to confuse the “non-rational” decisions of the experts—the decisions that derive from expert intuition and judgment—with the irrational decisions that stressful emotions may produce.**

If we rely purely on fear, anger, or whether we like or dislike an individual, we are likely to make an ill-informed decision. This does not meant that we should ignore our emotions. Rather, we should treat them as a signal that a situation requires closer examination as in the case of the infant with sepsis.

In business “managers who acknowledge the role of serendipity and luck have an advantage over those who have illusions of control and are overconfident about the accuracy of their judgments. Change is both inevitable and unpredictable.”***

We tend to be overconfident and overly optimistic. By acknownledging luck and our lack of total control. we are more likely to assess important decisions realistically rather than relying on a vague and possibly erroneous gut feeling.

Intuitions based on patterns born from long experience and tempered by the limits of our individual and collective knowledge will likely lead to sound decisions.

In our next post, we’ll examine situations in which intuition serves as a powerful decision-making tool and circumstances where intuition is best avoided in favor of a more analytical approach.


*Gary Klein Intuition at Work page vi.

**“Intuition and Decisions” by John R. Patton in Management Decisions 2003 page 4

***Fooled by Experience by Emre Soyer Robin M. Hogarth Harvard Business Review May 2015.

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