Go with your gut — cautiously

On the popular TV show NCIS, the team leader (Mark Harmon) is frequently heard exhorting his staff to “go with your gut” (for the women readers I guess you call this female intuition!). The lesson he is sharing with the team is that your intuition, as opposed to decisions based solely on analytics, may give you the best answer when you need to make a decision quickly.

Experts in neuroscience talk about intuition as a type of pattern matching. A new situation reminds you of a previous situation and its outcome. For example, given enough experience in selecting subcontractors, hiring coders, picking a winning stock or getting burned in a relationship, you develop a sense of when to move forward and when to walk away. Learning to listen to your instincts can save you time and trouble. Have you had the experience of meeting someone and knowing in the first few minutes that they were an expert in their field—or that they were “trouble”?

Let me call your attention to a recent Harvard Business Review Blog titled, “Learn to Trust Your Gut”. This is a well-written, if somewhat simplistic, view of listening to your inner voice when you believe a poor or even dangerous course of action is proposed.  When your inner voice speaks, the author suggests that, “If you think that doing things another way would make a material difference, talk to your boss (or customer or client). Why do we do it this way? Would you be open to different ways? What would be the payoff and the risk? Can we experiment with an alternative? Would it be worth doing some further analysis?” I agree this is an internal conversation worth having.

However …

Equally interesting to me in the blog post is comparing the author’s suggestions with comments from readers. Many commenters said — in different words and ways — “hogwash”. The gist of their negative reaction is that authority figures do not want to be questioned. They believe that following your gut, applying the principle that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission, or arguing for a different course of action than the one proposed by senior management is career limiting.  (If this is true, Steve Jobs should have not been very successful!)

So, why the disconnect?

I suggest that first you should ask yourself, “Whose decision is it?” As a project or team manager, if the final decision is yours, collect data and also tune in to your instinct. You will make a better decision when you take advantage of analytical and intuitive analysis.

In an alternate case, when your opinion is solicited before an action is taken by senior decision makers, I think you should give the questioner both facts and your intuitive assessment. For example, “I believe that XYZ Corporation brings useful skills and contacts to our proposal team. However, in conference with them, they only presented their approach and did not ask questions about our solution or the customer’s needs. I am concerned that they will have difficulty working in our cooperative environment.”

Finally, consider the situation, when as a project manager or team member you are told the decision and given your tasking. You “know” that the proposed activity is doomed to failure and you have an idea of a different, and more likely successful, way to achieve the stated goal. Here is where the situation becomes a bit sticky. What is the most effective way to share your insight and impact the action plan?

  • Before saying anything, reflect on your motives. Are you often the first person in any meeting who points out problems? Is your intuition telling you to avoid any change or only the proposed one? Are you reacting to the proposal or to the person making it?
  • Assuming, after your self-assessment, you conclude that your motives are pure and untainted by cognitive biases, then organize your thoughts and recommendations as talking points that demonstrate your appreciation of the decision maker’s priorities.
  • Unless asked directly for your opinion, it will be more effective to offer your comments and suggestions in a private face-to-face meeting than to confront the presenter publically.
  • If you are having difficulty putting words to your intuitive feelings, try talking it over with someone you trust and respect. Listen to their questions and feedback and allow it to help you organize your thoughts before talking with the decision maker.
  • Wait a day to let your cognitive analytical and intuitive thoughts coalesce before presenting your thoughts. Sleeping-on-it, like your grandmother said, helps. (Got a tough decision to make? Research suggests you’re best off just sleeping on it and Research: You make better decisions using intuition and Incubating Decisions).

If you have complementary or contradictory thoughts, please share.

One Response to “Go with your gut — cautiously”

  1. Justin Says:

    As always, a very interesting read Bruce. Internal conversation is hard to teach but a crucial skill. The ability to do it well could very well be the difference between a good Project Manager and a great one.


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