Head or Gut? Deliberation vs. Intuition

Posted: June 1, 2007 in Powerful Ideas

We can safely say that humans are decision making animals. However, just because we are constantly making decisions doesn’t mean that these decisions are necessarily rational. In fact, most of our decisions are not rational. They are made on the spur of the moment out of habit or, in more extreme circumstances, intuitively or instinctively. Intuition is essential in crises and emergencies, whereas a more deliberate approach is needed when time and circumstances permit.

What is intuition? Simply put, intuition is when we know something or know what to do without necessarily knowing why. What to do just comes to us in a flash of insight. Some intuitions are instinctive. For instance, if someone starts running after you with an ax, you will most likely have the instinctive (and intuitive) response of either defending yourself or running away. Moreover, your reaction would be highly rational.

Other intuitions are the result of years of training and knowledge building. Police officers, firefighters, military leaders, emergency medical care providers, airline pilots and many others spend years in learning and honing their skills in order to react in an instant with the optimal solution. In fact, society expects these people to make high quality intuitive decisions quickly and with resolve.

A surgeon with many years’ experience in the operating room has much better intuition than a neophyte. The same goes for a highly experienced fire captain. In his bestseller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a veteran firefighter was able to “sense” a change in situation and order all of his crew out of a house just before it collapsed. This individual was unable to identify the steps in his decision. He just “knew” that it was time to get out.

The same goes for experienced leaders and executives in all walks of life. After years of commanding and leading a variety of soldiers in all kinds of circumstances as a military officer, I could sense when someone was being honest with me or lying. I could also see when a young NCO or officer had potential for rapid promotion. It was the same for many of my colleagues. With that level of human experience, you can just tell if someone “has it” or doesn’t, and no amount of rational deliberation with convince you otherwise.

It is critical to understand, however, that not all intuitive decisions are equal. The problem with intuition is that it can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. For instance, I’m not a surgeon, so my intuition about where and how to cut to start an operation is worthless. On the other hand, a general practitioner, while not trained in the manner, would have at least a reasonable intuition given prior medical and physiological knowledge. By extension, some situations are so novel, that intuition is also next to useless and can even be counterproductive. In that case, deliberate decision making is needed in order to think through the factors impinging on the decision and to ensure that a variety of courses of action are considered.

The key is to know when to follow your intuition and when to adopt a more deliberate and rational approach. In general, the following situations are more amenable to intuitive decision making:

  1. Emergencies requiring an immediate response in order to save lives.
  2. Direct threats to physical safety.
  3. When a group has grown lethargic and overly reactive in the face of danger or risk and requires inspirational leadership to change the situation.

Just about all other situations have enough time built in to them to allow at least some level of deliberate, and deliberative, decision making. It is often wise to involve outside experts and to form an advisory team when faced with novel situations that will require imagination and resolve to turn around. Ironically, intuition can play a role in deliberate decision making because it is often useful for generating insight and innovative solutions.

Richard Martin is President of Alcera Consulting Inc., a management consulting firm that helps excellent executives become world-class leaders and that assists individuals and organizations to thrive in the face of risks, threats and uncertainty. He is known for his intellectual breadth and has led teams in critical and sometimes life-threatening situations as an infantry officer in the Canadian Army. Areas of expertise include crisis leadership, strategy, risk management, disaster preparedness, coaching, mentoring, speaking, and training.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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