In my last article about successful decision-making for innovative and emerging companies, I talked about the importance of keeping an updated mental model. In this article, I discuss an equally important factor: intuition.
Intuition has been recognized as a key business leadership attribute for quite some time. According to research at the University of Munich Business School, successful use of intuition distinguishes corporate leaders from middle-managers. However, we have a variety of misconceptions and mixed feelings as a society toward intuition. On the one hand, we admire leaders who make decisions based on intuition. We believe it reflects positively on their ability to exercise independent judgment and achieve results based on their own internal guidance system.
On the other hand we shy away from admitting that we make professional decisions based on intuition, hiding instead behind data and convention. We feel socially uncomfortable questioning what seems like rational or expert advice from others based on our intuition. And we frequently associate the term "intuition" with a demographic way outside the boundaries of business leadership, including spiritual mystics, gypsies, and Hungarian grandmothers.
We have an uncomfortable relationship with intuition because its mechanisms have yet to be fully validated by science. And as a society we hesitate to give credence to phenomena without the backing of data. However, the absence of formal data does not mean that evidence does not exist. It is akin to saying that the human genome does not exist because it has not been mapped fully. We know intuition exists, even if we do not understand it fully.
Intuition is grounded in our ability to look at a situation with fresh eyes and exercise independent judgment. Sometimes this means making a decision that is contrary to convention or societal expectation.
Behind intuition is a complex neurological processing system. It is based on our sensory perception of environmental and social cues. These cues are combined and run through all of our past experiences in life. Based on these experiences, our intuition provides us with its best judgment regarding our current situation.
The intuitive system of cognition is much faster and more sophisticated than our intellectual or "rational" cognitive system, and is much more equipped to deal with the complexities and ambiguities in our world. It is part of a much older system of our brain that is designed to help us make immediate decisions based on large volumes of data.
Try practicing your intuition at the check-out counter of the grocery store to determine which line will move quickest--first using your rational mind, and then using your intuition. Your rational mind may look at the amount of people standing in line, as well as what is going on at the check-out counter this very moment. It will choose where you should wait based on a few simple variables.
Your intuitive mind, on the other hand, will scan the scene and suggest to you that you go wait in a line that does not particularly appear to be the very short nor moving very quickly. Your intuitive mind is actually taking a much more complex scan of the scene--it recognizes that the cashier moving the fastest is getting tired. That the couple waiting in that line are looking around in confusion, realizing that they forgot something.
Our conscious or rational mind may not see all of this, but our intuitive mind does. Our intuitive mind is able to take in many more evidentiary cues and use them to anticipate where things will be in the very near future; a remarkable feat.
However, because our rational mind does not keep up with the intuitive mind, it will argue loudly with us to ignore our intuition. And so we get in that shorter line moving quickly only to find ourselves stuck there for the next 12 minutes, amazed that the traffic jam the next check-out over has miraculously disappeared.
We are most open to acting upon intuition when we are present to the moment and not overly absorbed in our thoughts and problems. It is almost as if our rational mind and intuition sit in the same room but occasionally our rational mind blares the stereo. We cannot receive the guidance of intuition if our rational mind is blaring.
Our rational mind is more likely to be blaring if we are feeling lost within the confines of an inaccurate mental model and clinging to its assumptions in our daily decisions. As a result, validating and updating our mental model is also key to getting the most of our intuition.
Unfortunately because intuition provides us with messages that frequently do not appear to have a rational explanation, our mind steps in and tends to rationalize them away. "Call Bob," our intuition may say, and our mind will rationalize that Bob won't answer the phone because he is on vacation.
Messages from intuition are usually also very time sensitive. They may tell us to leave the office and go to a certain coffee shop at a given moment. Our rational mind may tell us that we are not thirsty or hungry and put off the outing for several hours. We may only learn later, if at all, that the potential client we have been wanting to meet was there at the time our intuition told us to act.
Another mysterious element of intuition is that it may prod us to do a certain thing--open our laptop and send an email to our business partner--only to reveal to us a problem that is completely unrelated--an urgent incoming email from our supplier. I suspect this happens because our intuitive mind knows that we will not consciously understand its rationale--so it tells us something that we can wrap our head around.
Intuition arises from a much older system of the brain which also processes information multiple times faster than our rational mind. Its mechanisms are so mysterious as to appear completely improbable in our modern society. However, it is a tried and true system that has both saved many people from entering dangerous or unfavorable situations and guided others to safety and opportunity.
Intuition is similar but slightly different from another attribute helpful for navigating unknown situations. This is a healthy respect for your emotions. I will discuss the role of emotions in business decision-making next time.
Thanks for joining me and get in touch if you need further guidance!