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Does intuition lead to fuzzy decision-making?

By Thomas Walsh

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In past columns I have asked, “Who does the best thinking in your organization?” The purpose of this question is to focus on two different and yet important types of thinking — creative thinking that generates new ideas that can be exploited for the growth and prosperity of the business, and analytic or critical thinking to select the best ideas and to implement them as flawlessly as possible. 

Without good thinkers, an organization’s viable life is not likely to be long. Often, the creative thinkers are not the same people as the analytic people and therefore having a “thought-leader” team that represents both styles of thinking is very important. Even if the CEO is not the best at either of these thinking styles, it is his or her job to find and develop these thinkers and to create a disciplined process that strives to get the best thinkers possible engaged in the planning for the business.

Another aspect of thinking worth exploring is the role of intuition. In essence, intuition is usually defined as knowing something instinctively. Are you guided by your intuition — those “aha” moments — or do you analyze a problem backwards and forwards before making a decision? 

And, more importantly, how are you doing? Do you have a solid track record of good judgment and decision-making? It is not only new-age types who are encouraging us to use our sixth sense, but there are major business magazines telling us to go with our gut feelings, and seminars and books on intuition are promising to help us become more successful in work and life. So how do you use your gut feelings? 

Often, people who are biased more towards intuition are simply intellectually lazy and undisciplined in their thinking and therefore rely on gut feelings to make decisions. That is not to say that intuition is not helpful; it can lead us to wonderful, game-changing pathways. However, those with a track record of good judgment and decision-making realize that intuition must be channeled through a slower and deeper process, requiring deliberate thinking and reasoning. 

Clear thinking requires writing down your initial thoughts (intuition), putting them away and revisiting them again and again until you have captured your best thoughts, and then sharing them with other trusted thinkers, creatives, and analytics to get their input and refine the ideas and plans even further.  

Clear thinking also requires a context of reduced stress and external stimulation. Most days, we are bombarded with stimuli — emails, phones, Internet searches, “got a minute” requests, and on and on. How can we think deeply under those circumstances? We need to get away, get quiet, and focus on one issue, problem, or opportunity at a time. If you are one of the best thinkers in your company, how often do you discipline yourself to do this — sit, think, write? It is the job of a CEO to do this and to insist that other thought leaders in the company sit, think, write, and plan. Being constantly hurried only leads to acting on poorly formed ideas and leads to poor execution. 

Generally, your thinking and intuition are more likely to be flawed in unknown territory and/or when you are facing stress. If your business is facing more uncertainty — global competition, new markets, and new products — you are more at risk of being a victim of gut feelings and distorted, poorly formed thinking. When we have no other information to go on, we are more likely to choose the easiest path. 

The evidence is pretty compelling that business leaders need to focus more on the slower thinking that involves conscious evaluation, logic, and reasoning, advises Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking Fast and Slow.” According to a study of school-aged children, it is the slower, deliberate, considerate thinkers who demonstrate more intelligence throughout life. 

In decision-making, if you take the shortcut by using your fast intuitive system, without the additional steps of analysis, you are opening yourself up to errors and biases, and even potential manipulation.  

Intuition has been valued in business because, similar to vision, it is considered to be a unique competitive attribute. So sought-after are the skills of visionaries that they are the most written about people in the world — Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs. In business, visionaries are also those who make the most money. But one could argue that Warren Buffet does not consider himself to be a visionary at all but a good researcher. Active investors, on the other hand, often suffer from overconfidence in their ability to intuit future stock prices.

Overconfidence, or an optimism bias, is yet another human shortcoming interfering with intuition guided by critical thinking. It is frighteningly common, in my experience, for business people without a track record of years of successful judgment and decision-making that they overestimate their individual and organizational capabilities and minimize the complexities of the market or the execution of their plan. They rely on their confidence, their intuition (not guided by enough analytics), and go boldly forth, often with catastrophic results.  

Good leaders have a humble confidence and surround themselves with both a creative and analytic think-team. They trust their gut but follow a rigorous and deeper analytic process to get to clearer and better decision-making.       

 

Thomas Walsh, Ph.D. is president of Grenell Consulting Group, a regional firm specializing in maximizing the performance of organizations and their key contributors. Email Walsh at tcwalshphd@grenell.com

 

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