How Can We Use The Power Of Our Intuition To Improve The Accuracy, Confidence, And Efficiency Of Our Decision-Making?
Decision-making is an integral part of life; we progress in our lives and work based on the way we respond to the choices we are presented with.
In the age of big data, the use of intuition – also known as ‘gut feeling’ – is often dismissed as mystical or unreliable. Although intuition can be fallible, research indicates that its combination with analytical reasoning offers access to the widest range of data and leads to smarter, faster, and more dependable decisions than those that rely solely on intellect. This is especially true in highly complex and rapidly changing environments, where decisions involve numerous interdependencies.
Recourse to intuition is most valuable in the absence of a "clear" option, when there are contradictions in the data, or ambiguity due to lack of data, when the decision is people-centric (hiring, firing or political decisions), or when the tipping point of overthinking is reached...
Our brain’s ability to recognize patterns stored in our memory is at the heart of intuition
Intuition is a process by which the brain assigns meaning to experiences/events and reaches conclusions without resorting to conscious thought. It’s a way of processing information in a non-rational and non-sequential way, drawing on the vast reservoir of knowledge from our life experiences and memories. When faced with new challenges or circumstances, our brain refers to patterns stored in our memory to make sense of the present, anticipate the future and decide on the appropriate course of action.
Intuitions can come to us in small "aha" moments as we weigh alternatives. The brain can pick up clues from past experiences and match them with facts. Over the years, I've learned to listen when something bugs me, alerting me to an anomaly – a small, nagging feeling that interferes with decision making and prompts further investigation. For example, there were times when I missed warning signs of an error in staff selection, and later regretted it.
The power of intuition to complement analytical tools
While traditional decision-support tools – decision trees, real options, portfolio management, etc. – can quickly sort through many alternatives and produce a more reliable decision than one based on intuition alone, they have their limitations. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, the use of decision trees relies on the knowledge of the commercial value of a drug ten years before it hits the market. Also, decision trees ignore emergent phenomena or chance events, such as the discovery that a drug designed to treat one disease can be used to treat another very different disease.
Our mind is a marvelous but imperfect processor of information
However, there are a few caveats to using intuition. As Bruce Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, pointed out in 1977, our mind is a wonderful but imperfect processor of information.
Cultural and emotional biases and prejudices may influence our subconscious thinking. We naturally tend to favor data that confirm preconceived beliefs and reject data that challenge them. In addition, as creatures of the status quo, we are drawn to conclusions that justify and perpetuate current conditions, thereby avoiding questioning.
Enough is enough! – the tipping point of overthinking is reached
Ultimately, after a period of extensive data collection and systematic review, as well as repeated input from experts and colleagues, the tipping point of overthinking is reached. It is the point at which the time spent gathering new data and suggestions exceeds its value. That point is not a specific moment in time, but rather the realization that inaction is counterproductive. In the end, our intuition is our best counsel.
How can we tap into our intuition to make better decisions?
1. Recognize that intuition is part of our intelligence
Give your brain a break and let your mind wander to capture those aha moments. Based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) studies, which measure small changes in blood flow due to brain activity, when you take a break, the brain is still working on the problem. In fact, pausing allows your brain to pick up signals from your experience, stored in less accessible areas of the brain, and associate them with facts.
2. Discern gut feeling from fear
When weighing your options, pay attention to physical clues: is that feeling in your stomach nausea or the nervous excitement of anticipation? How does each option impact your energy level: does the possibly excessive workload produce a sense of exhaustion… or exhilaration?
To get comfortable using your intuition, start by making minor decisions with limited consequences. Gradually, and with greater confidence, you may move on to more important decisions.
4. Test drive your choices
When you’re first starting to use your intuition, decisions may not come to you quickly. Instead of overthinking, role play it. Let’s say you have a new opportunity in a new industry: for 3 days, act as if you’ve chosen Option A (embrace the new challenge) and observe how you think and feel. Then, for another 3 days, try on Option B (staying on the current career path). At the end of the experiment, take stock of your reactions. Simulating the outcome can tell you a lot about the outcome you really want, and which decision would be best for you.
5. Fall back on your values
Consider the decision or action that most closely aligns with your core values. Core values may help you identify the source of your frustration and allow you to take a step back. Let's say you are agitated after a long day at work where nothing went your way. Perhaps you value honesty, and the tension comes from not sharing your true feelings on an important issue?
Harnessing the power of intuition is an essential skill for leaders in highly complex and rapidly changing environments. It is the fine, subtle insights into our subconscious mind, in conjunction with a rigorous exploration of all options, that separate success from failure.
The adage "listen to your intuition" has scientific validity. It's not witchery, it's neuroscience.