I recently reconnected with a former colleague that I’d not seen in several years. He was the type of person that just didn’t fit the corporate mold – you know the kind that speaks their mind, is impulsive, a little volatile, moves really fast, and makes decisions from his gut.
Over lunch, he told the story of his latest venture of buying an underperforming manufacturing business, turning it into a growing, profitable entity and then selling it for big money to a large competitor. He talked about how in his first days as the new owner, employees were coming to him with a variety of ideas. He didn’t really know the industry and there were no formal business cases, user studies or even customer requirements to review. But, his intuition helped him identify the winning ideas, and whom to trust. He approved the ideas that “felt good.” Many of the ideas worked, which motivated the employees to bring even more new ideas, and ultimately the business prospered.
Why are there some people who quickly and accurately grasp a situation and make a correct determination without a ton of facts? What exactly is intuition? Is it an important trait to have as a leader? If so, then how can we better learn to trust our gut?
First, let’s start with the basics. Intuition by definition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. Carl Jung called it a “perception via the unconscious.” He wrote that a person who is intuitive acts not on the basis of rational judgment but on sheer intensity of perception. I guess a fun way to describe it is, “Knowing without knowing how you know.”
While there are varying opinions, it is commonly accepted that intuitive thinkers make up between 10 to 20% of the population. They tend to be big picture people that see things how they could be, not how they are. They do not learn through sequential facts, rather they like random leaps. They tend to have vivid imaginations, and are fascinated by the unknown, hidden, and unseen.
So what enables intuitive thinkers to quickly evaluate a situation and make a decision?
- They judge ideas against a limited set of filters. Intuitive thinking is not necessarily deep and complex. Rather, it requires the evaluation of an idea against a set of parameters or filters. The more filters, the longer and more complex the thinking. The key is to have a limited number of the right filters.
- They don’t get hung up on details. Remember they are big picture people – they are focused on what could be, not the road to get there.
- Have high levels of personal confidence. Intuitive people just seem to be very sure of their actions. They tend not to fret over decisions – they make their choice and confidently move forward
- They size people up by reading body language and non verbal clues. Intuitive people are good at seeing the hidden clues that are passed during communication: facial ticks, posture, movement, voice inflections. These clues enable them to get insight or information that might be missed by others.
- They’re not that worried about risks. They see the potential of something and focus on how to succeed. The risks or concerns of failure do not overly complicate their thinking.
There’s little debate as to whether intuition plays an important role in leadership. Bill Gates the Microsoft founder said that, “as a leader, often you have to rely on intuition.” Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein is even more emphatic: “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
Of course relying on intuition is not fool proof. Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at MIT, states that, “It is easy to make bad judgments quickly.” His argument is that we have biases that lead us astray when making assessments. And, because intuitive thinkers tend to make quick decisions – the impact of a wrong one can be devastating.
It’s clear that intuitive thinking must be balanced by data. I support a collaborative approach between the two. If your “gut” and the data are not aligned – then you have to go back and recheck the facts. In the end, there must be some foundation of facts to support the intuitive thoughts. And, with today’s tools – it’s easier than ever to incorporate data into this approach.
So can intuition be learned? Steve Jobs said of his first trip to India, “The main thing I’ve learned is intuition.” A google search of organizations selling intuitive learning classes numbered in the millions. So there’s clearly some who think intuition is a learnable skill.
What can you do to improve your intuitive thinking?
- The experience you gain over time will help you to better judge ideas and people – just from sheer repetition.
- Concentrate on being more observant, looking at body language, and trying to read between the lines. Everyone has this ability; it’s just that some people have learned early on how to use it.
- Make an effort to use your intuitive skills every day. Don’t talk yourself out of an idea before thinking it through. Convince yourself that your intuition works, and then use it!
- Keep a journal of your decisions and regularly review it to track your results. Look at the factors that resulted in successful decisions, and use them again. Looking back on your successes will help boost your confidence in your intuitive abilities.
- Finally, closely observe those around you who are intuitive thinkers. Ask them about how they filter and process ideas. Looks for patterns in how they act. Find their strengths (and weaknesses), and determine if you can incorporate some of their techniques into your thinking.
There are a large number of people who are not intuitive thinkers. This does not stop them from honing their skills in this area. And, it’s important for intuitive thinkers to have people around them who think differently, who can counter-balance their big thoughts with the practical details. The best organizations that I have worked with balance different types of thinkers who can see the potential, the practical details and the risks.
What do you think? I’m interested in your comments.