Many business strategists rely heavily on intuitive thinking. But what if you can’t trust your intuition as much as you think you can?

Human brains are amazing. We can send people to the moon and back, cure disease and make almost anything out of cauliflower. The brain makes (often) accurate, intuitive judgements in split seconds. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, “We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that — sometimes — we’re better off that way.”

Psychologists estimate that we make 35,000 judgments every day, for example, selecting items at the grocery store, making decisions behind the wheel of a car, or choosing whether to delete an email. In these cases, we are using mental shortcuts that reduce the cognitive effort involved in decision-making. Our brains recognize a pattern that is similar to other situations and we respond to a “gut feeling” that directs us what to do. These decisions are generally good enough for most situations. With small decisions, which most decisions are, if we don’t get it precisely right, the consequences aren’t ultimately significant in the long game.

In my work with large company CEOs, I find that as leaders rise in seniority, they become more likely to rely on their intuition. Their ability to make quick and intuitive decisions that turn out well has played a part in their rise to leadership. But when they hit what I’ll call the “intuition wall”—the point where decisions become much more complex, this type of decision making doesn’t work as well anymore. Pattern recognition is not the ideal tool for the new, multi-faceted situations they face. These puzzles may appear to fit into a pattern, but they don’t.

What is behind this dynamic? Psychologists have found, not surprisingly, experts are usually better at making decisions than novices. They have schemas or mental models they can access quickly and use to solve automatically in their area of expertise. That’s great, except when the problem that needs solving isn’t in that expert’s exact sweet spot of expertise. An expert who can fix computers, isn’t necessarily any better than a novice at building computers. As CEOs and general managers move up the ranks, they can get into real trouble because they can never have expertise in all the areas where they need to make decisions.

When faced with larger strategic decisions such as a major corporate investment, launch of a new product line or critical hiring decision, your brain can feel like an expert and will want to lead with intuitive reasoning. Instead of working through a systematic assessment of options that will yield a balanced conclusion, your intuitive brain could be tempted to jump to a decision and then put your analytical brain to work on proving that it is the right thing to do.

There are ways around this bias for strategic planners. Research shows that just being conscious of the human tendency to overuse our intuition is a powerful tool. The most important fix for this bias though is to slow down and use a methodical thinking process. Articulate the logic and analysis behind the strategic narrative you are building. Even better is to formally introduce a contrarian viewpoint, forcing challenges to the strategic narrative.

The next time you feel tempted to let your intuition lead the way in the strategy process, ask yourself if the decision may be too large to leave in hands of this less trustworthy part of your brain. If you are working on a major, important, strategic decision, especially if it involves multiple areas of expertise, you’ll need to push yourself to use both parts of your brain—the intuitive and the analytical.

Then you will truly be able to trust your brain.

Have you observed yourself or others overusing intuitive decision-making? How have you pushed back against this tendency? What has worked well for you?


For more information:

In this video, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about the pitfalls of intuitive decision-making or what he calls System 1 Thinking.

For a clear review of the strengths and weaknesses of intuitive decision-making see this article from Scientific American.

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