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.

How to Help Management Make a Better IT Decision

Decisions that directly affect Information Technology (IT) projects or IT services within an organization are not always made in the IT (or Engineering) department. That is not bad thing; it is just the way things are and how business runs.
Like what?

  • Management decides it is in the company’s strategic interest to form a partnership with another company that includes exchanging selected IT services
  • A desirable client requires all documents to be in Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point
  • Planning which IT functions to centralize and which ones to operate independently or with greater flexibility
  • Figuring out how to balance data security and personal privacy
  • Allocating the internal IT budget to the needs of the organization

The good news is
Almost all companies and organizations ask for consultative help from IT or Technology professionals and project managers as they deliberate strategic decisions that involve IT related tasks.  Of course senior management needs to realize that the options under consideration involve IT, either directly or indirectly. If they don’t get it, you – the project manager – may need to be proactive (subtly and with political sensitivity). For example, if you hear via the grapevine — oh, yes your organization has one so get plugged in! – that the company is considering purchasing XYZ’s CRM system, you might remind your boss that XYZ’s system requires upgrading your server or that it does not work with the database that you currently have.
In asking for a professional opinion from IT, I have found that decision makers treat these expert professionals in one of three ways – hint: the first two are bad.

  • The IT professional is viewed as a deity with magical understanding and powers.
  • The IT professional is viewed as someone who does not understand the reality of managing a for-profit business. So, their opinions or recommendations are viewed with skepticism as to motivation and possible empire building fantasies.
  • The IT professional is viewed as an essential and knowledgeable team member who can provide insight into options and consequences in order to make sound business decisions.

Effectively assisting management decision making

  • Prepare yourself with facts and the opinions of unbiased outsiders – especially if, based on your previous dealings with these managers, you know that “expert” opinion is given higher value than general opinions. (see: Fear No Project post on Cognitive Science Insights into Decision Making).
  • Remember that cost is a big decision driver for senior managers. Include short term costs and long term cost implications, such as maintenance and training in answering questions and presenting information — especially critical when the initial cost may be lower for a poor decision.
  • Prepare to discuss risks and the impact of the decision on existing and planned projects and organizational strategy.
  • Do NOT become emotional, remain calm and objective.
  • Do NOT talk down to the decision makers because they are less knowledgeable about technology. It is your job to explain options, costs and risks in layman’s terms. Consider using analogies and metaphors that will resonate with the shared experience of decision makers.(See the post on Communicating to a non-technical Audience)
  • Listen closely to questions and clarify concerns before giving an answer or recommendation. Offer to collect more information if they seem to want it before making a decision. Just remember that senior managers don’t like to postpone decisions.
  • When you have done the best you can, remain quiet and allow the deliberations to take their course.  One more time, be quiet and listen.

If you have additional ideas or have been successful in helping managers make better decisions, please share your insights.

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