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Intuition: How it Works and What to Do when it Fails You | Video

Intuition: How it Works and What to Do when it Fails You | Video

You use your intuition every day. And it often serves you well. But, not always. So, how does it work and how can you fix it, when your intuition fails you?

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This is learning, so, sit back and enjoy

Intuition is Your Ability to do Two Things. 

  1. First, to extract a small amount of essential information from a complex situation. 
  2. And second, to make sense of that information. And intuition happens at a level beneath your conscious awareness.

Often, Your Intuition can Guide You to Good Decisions 

But sometimes, it lets you down.

The more experience you have in your professional environment, the more reliable your intuition gets. The whole process has three stages:

  1. Perception
  2. Understanding
  3. Judgment

You perceive a situation. Then you understand it. And finally, you evaluate it. The outcome is a decision.

We do two things at each stage. This means the process of intuition, which links your situation to your decision, has a total of six steps.

Stage 1: Perception

From your situation, your brain selects a small number of elements to focus on. Most real-world situations are too complex for your mind to handle everything. The second step is to spot patterns among the elements you’ve selected. For pure intuition, neither selection nor pattern-forming is conscious. Your brain cuts through the vast amount of sensory data. It picks for you. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell calls this process ‘thin-slicing’.

Stage 2: Understanding

Your brain makes sense of the patterns you perceive in two phases. First, we slot the patterns into a mental model. Examples include:

  • Finance stakeholders are mostly interested in money
  • Computer problems are more often software-related than hardware issues
  • Bosses don’t like to hear bad news

Applying a mental model allows us to come up with an interpretation of the situation.

Stage 3: Judgment

This interpretation leads us to be able to predict what will happen next. We play events forward based on all of our experiences. And then, we can figure out what we can do, to bend events to our preferences. This allows us to create one or more plans of action.

Once you have done this, you can then make a decision.

How Familiar is this Intuition Process? 

You should recognize it. I’d suggest that it happens many times every day. Mostly, it all works astonishingly well. 

But it can let you down

Your intuition can fail at any of these six steps.

1. Poor Selection

Your brain filters out masses of unnecessary information all the time. It has to, or it would soon overload. But what if the information it selects to focus on is the wrong stuff. It is less relevant to understanding the situation than it could be. A lot of cognitive biases start with his failing. We choose the most recent and most astonishing information. Or we choose the data that fits our expectations or simply makes a good story.

2. Wrong Pattern

Our brains are good at forming patterns. So much so, that we see patterns in random data. So, it’s not a surprise to learn that another set of mistakes arises when we spot a pattern that’s not real. The way to test a pattern is to see if it persists if you double the amount of information you consider.

3. Inappropriate Mental Model

We learn rules of thumb about the way things work. If you apply the wrong one, or if the data is outside of your experience set, you’ll misunderstand what is going on. Always ask yourself where the model breaks down. It’s too seductive to focus on where it works.

4. Faulty Interpretation

Even with the right mental model, you can interpret its implications incorrectly. Ask yourself how else you can interpret what you know. And then look for small tests that can show if your interpretation is consistent with some new facts.

5. Wrong Prediction

Even with a good interpretation of the right model, you can predict outcomes incorrectly. That’s because prediction relies on assumptions. So, test your predictions by:

  1. list all the assumptions you are making
  2. determine which have the biggest impact on the outcomes
  3. change those assumptions to the most adverse plausible alternatives
  4. review your predictions with the new assumptions

6. Bad Plan

Have you ever had a prediction that is so worrying that you choose to ignore it and plan on a better scenario? This is when your plan fails to address your prediction. So, it is unlikely to be a sound basis for decision-making.

One Last Failure of Your Intuition

I see this a lot in some of my clients. After you’ve gone through the whole process of honing your intuition to create a robust plan… what do the senior people do? Nothing. 

Not deciding often feels safe and comfortable. It is neither. There are huge risks in deferring a decision. But that could easily lead me into politics, so I’ll stop here.

Which of these points of intuitive failure ring bells with you?

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About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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