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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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:
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.
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’.
Your brain makes sense of the patterns you perceive in two phases. First, we slot the patterns into a mental model. Examples include:
Applying a mental model allows us to come up with an interpretation of the situation.
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.
You should recognize it. I’d suggest that it happens many times every day. Mostly, it all works astonishingly well.
Your intuition can fail at any of these six steps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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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 ProjectManager.com 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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