Intuitive Decision Process

In Intuitive Decision Making we referred to Gary Klein’s definition of intuition: “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).”

The next step is to think carefully about when intuitive decision making works well, and when it poses significant risk. The key to this assessment lies in evaluating our own level of expertise and examining the decision environment.

Intuition and Expertise

Klein’s reference to translating “our experience into action,” simply refers to our ability to organize information and store it for easy retrieval. The firefighter stores his experience about different types of fires, while the NICU nurse stores information about sepsis symptoms. By working in a specific field for many years, we gain the ability to rely on our sense of what works well and where there might be a problem.

Intuition and Environment

The environment is equally critical. As decision expert Robin Hogarth explains in Educating intuition, we can think of the environment in terms of learning structures. These structures are either kind or wicked:

  • A kind learning structure is conducive to gathering accurate information that will inform a decision. Hogarth provides the example of a professional tennis player who operates in a kind environment. A tennis player strikes the ball, and it goes in or out. The feedback is clear and immediate, allowing the player to adjust her stroke if necessary. Further, emotion is largely absent. The tennis ball does not care where it goes. This kind environment lends itself to intuitive decision making.
  • A wicked environment is the opposite. In an emergency room, explains Hogarth, the staff rarely see the outcome of treatment. They cannot, therefore, rely on long-term feedback; they can observe only what happens in the short term. These doctors and nurses also have few opportunities to experiment. Finally, emotion runs high in ERs. In short, the ER does not allow doctors and nurses to gather sufficient or even accurate information that would allow them to rely on intuition.

In short, professional tennis players and seasoned ER doctors and nurses possess the expertise necessary to make intuitive decisions. The difference is that the tennis player’s situation is conducive to intuition, while the ER staff is subject to a volatile and emotional environment meaning that intuition is unlikely to work well.

How might we apply expertise and environment to decision making in business?

Many believe in the power of intuition when making hiring decisions. The problem is that hiring is a challenging and often uneven process. While HR professionals possess hiring expertise, many hiring mangers do not because even seasoned managers normally hire intermittently, perhaps every few years. Exacerbating the absence of deep experience is the difficulty of predicting success for job candidates. As Hogarth explains, the criteria for gauging success are often vague, and the feedback concerning success or failure is delayed. Subsequent job performance of rejected candidates in similar positions cannot be observed, and performance can be affected by the simple fact of having been judged suitable for the job (the act of choice sets in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy). In short, while many managers proudly profess their reliance on intuition when hiring, this is precisely the wrong context in which to apply intuition.

The solution to the hiring challenge is to include colleagues in the decision process and add analysis to the decision process. Drawing on diverse experience expands the group’s expertise and facilitates a more objective analysis of each candidate. In addition, including others diffuses emotion because a strong favorable or unfavorable reaction based on an unconscious bias (an applicant who reminds you of an unpleasant classmate, for example) is mitigated by others in the group who may not share the same bias.

As illustrated by the ER example above, some environments are not suitable to an intuitive decision process. In the case of hiring, however, it is possible to move the needle. If the same group makes hiring decision and regularly consults with HR to track the performance of current and former employees, the environment becomes kinder (although far from perfect). This kinder environment makes it possible to rely partly on intuition while also including analysis when making hiring decisions.

Considering the high cost of turnover and bad hires, the ability to draw on others’ expertise, improve the decision environment, and supplement intuition with analysis can go a long way toward finding and keeping talented professionals.

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