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In the age of big data, relying on intuition—what others call gut, instinct, a sixth sense or a hunch—can seem like a cop-out or an inferior system.
But according to a survey of top executives, the majority of leaders leverage feelings and experience when making handling crises. And despite popular belief, intuition isn’t a woo-woo concept exclusively reserved for the touchy-feely self-help world. There’s actually a neurological basis for it.
The human mind is wired to see patterns . Not only does the brain process information as it comes in, it also stores insights from all your past experiences. Your intuition has been developing and expanding for as long as you’ve been alive. Every interaction, happy or sad, is cataloged in your memory. Intuition draws from that deep memory well to inform your decisions going forward.
In other words, intuitive decisions are based on data, in a way. When we subconsciously spot patterns, the body starts firing neurochemicals in both the brain and gut . These “somatic markers ” are what give us that instant sense that something is right … or that it’s off. Not only are these automatic processes faster than rational thought, but your intuition draws from decades of diverse qualitative experience (sights, sounds, interactions, etc.) – a wholly human feature that big data alone could never accomplish.
Being itself faster than rational thought, intuition is a necessary skill that can help decision-making when time is short and traditional analytics may not be available.
Management expert Travis Bradberry recently wrote that highly intuitive people tend to:
Science writer Steven Johnson has said that innovation is the result of accumulated hunches over time: it’s what happens when we let personal experience collide with environments that bring out creativity. From this perspective, world-changing inventions—from the x-ray to penicillin—are just “happy accidents ” that illustrate intuition in action.
Because each person’s intuition is based on a collection of individual experiences, it is subject to opinion and bias.
In many instances, it’s virtually impossible to make decisions without using data. If a company has been collecting and relying on data for decades and is thriving, for instance, there’s no sense in completely throwing out the old playbook. Big data can point out patterns that are too subtle for our brains to detect. Analytics don’t necessarily have to overrule human judgement, but they can complement it.
Rather than trying to value one over the other, leaders can combine insights from big data and intuition to make decisions. This approach gives them the best of both worlds. Here’s how to use it:
It’s not a war of AI versus humans . Intuition and big data can exist in harmony, especially if companies actively create teams that combine people from diverse backgrounds and schools of thought. Both intuition and data can lead to insights and breakthroughs. Rather than seeing yourself at odds with colleagues who use the opposite technique, be open to the insights they have. Teams that are echo chambers for one way of thinking lead to groupthink and squelch creativity.
A hypothesis, whether in the boardroom or in a lab, is a hunch. It’s an educated guess fueled by intuition, and it can point you in the direction of a potentially remarkable discovery. Once you have a theory, you can put it to the test with data. If intuition is the spark, data is the kindling that allows the fire to burn. Validating, then iterating, provides a method for exploring the hunch further.
There’s no denying that data helps you present your case to your team or company leadership. Statistical analysis can put your findings into context and make a strong argument for more funding or development. Intuition, on the other hand, helps you gauge whether your discovery feels accurate and on-point. Using intuition to do a “gut check ” can help you earn credibility. You’re less likely to present a discovery that has holes and more likely to communicate your findings in a way that’s relatable.
Cultivating intuition doesn’t just rely on your brain’s ability to detect patterns. It also requires empathy, a skill that can be a huge competitive advantage. Empathy allows you to observe a problem, see how it affects others, and determine how you can fix it. For example, Linkedin’s “People You May Know” feature was developed based on strong hunch that people would be curious to know what their former colleagues and contacts are up to. There wasn’t much hard evidence to prove that the idea would be successful. It sprung up from a deeper knowing of what drives human needs and desires.
Big data isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. But we tend to grossly undervalue the role intuition plays in decision-making, especially at high levels of leadership. In a time where we all tasked with processing the deluge of information coming at us daily, sometimes it’s worth going with your gut.
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