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How much should you let intuition affect your decision-making?

by | Jun 4, 2020

Chess board in black and white

Data, evidence, discussions with colleagues, previous experience, management theory – these can all be things that leaders turn to when decision-making.

However, we all have built within us a very useful tool in decision-making which often gets ignored in the c-suite – intuition.

In day to day life it’s common to hear talk of having ‘gut feelings’ or ‘hunches’ about what one should do in any given situation, but too often these feelings are ignored in the boardroom and over-ridden by more empirical decision-making methods.

Fool proof?

Making decisions based on intuition has fallen out of favour in the scientific age that we live in. We are told that our feelings should be kept under control, while we override our instincts by making data-driven decisions.

It all sounds very logical, fool proof even, but there’s a problem.

Data gives a snapshot, and can provide very useful information, but all the data in the world is no match for the myriad and complex learnings someone in a leadership position will have gained from their lifetime’s experience.

The value of intuition

An experiment involving a game of chess, can help explain why intuition is such a valuable leadership tool.

Novice chess players were asked to look at the position of 25 chess pieces halfway through a game, and then after a period of time, to recreate the positioning. On average they were only able to place 6 of the pieces correctly. The experiment was repeated with professional chess players, and they were all able to place all 25 pieces correctly.

Now, of course you could argue that this innate ability is the reason these people were professional chess players in the first place, but the second part of this experiment disproved that.

Recognising patterns

The 25 pieces were then placed on the board in an ad hoc fashion, i.e. not in chess playing positions, the novices again placed 6 of the pieces on average, but this time so did the professionals.

Often what we call intuitive decision-making is actually our ability to combine our knowledge, experiences, and the evidence before us to recognize patterns. All of this happens extremely quickly and unconsciously so that we aren’t even aware of it.

Research shows that using your intuition can be a very useful decision-making tool in certain conditions.

Use your domain expertise

Researchers at Boston College in the US tested intuition against analysis, and like in the chess experiment, found that people can rely on their gut when making broad evaluations, in areas when they have in depth subject knowledge or experience, also known as domain expertise.

In this fast, complex and ever-changing world that businesses operate in, intuition is an increasingly valuable tool. Analysis is valuable when you have time, information, or need to make a series of complex and interconnected decisions, but intuition can use patterns and experience to make quick decisions under pressure.

As people take more senior positions, they often need to make decisions more quickly, under pressure or in complex circumstances. Research like this shows that if you have solid knowledge and experience in an area, your domain expertise will mean you can trust your intuition as well as the data.

So – don’t be afraid to listen to your instincts, they’ve served you well this far!