I’ve started reading The Power of Intuition. The author, Klein, defines intuition as “the way we translate our experience into action.” By this, he means we draw upon a large number of experiences in order to, often subconsciously, recognize situations or make decisions. In other words, he’s saying that intuition comes from somewhere.
Klein also points out two extreme stances on intuition.
One, intuition is sacred and should be used as much as possible. The key here is to have extremely good intuition, but how you get that intuition is usually (inadequately) explained.
Two, always reject intuition in favor of reasoning and analysis. Because intuition can be faulty, it should never be trusted.
Klein pushes for a middle ground, recognizing that both intuition and analysis are important. However, this includes a belief that intuition can be trained and improved, allowing you to use it more reliably.
Relying on Intuition
This middle stance is widely and easily accepted, I think. Especially when it comes to work decisions and even more so when talking about management. People often tout both (a) making data-driven decisions and (b) making decisions with incomplete information.
There are two frameworks typically used to figure out how much intuition or analysis to use.
The first is the cost of not making a decision. The amount of time you wait (as you analyze) may matter and carry some form of cost. When this is the case, you want to rely more on your intuition, taking into account whatever information you do have. This is typically the underlying rationale whenever someone talks about speed.
The second is the cost of making a wrong decision. The more costly a wrong decision is, the more resources you should be willing to put into analyzing the decision. You wouldn’t spend days deciding to buy the vanilla ice cream or the chocolate ice cream. If you make the mistake of buying chocolate, there’s minimal cost—you can eat it, go back and buy the vanilla, etc.
It seems to me that relying on intuition as much as reasonable is a good approach—it is likely faster and cheaper than trying to avoid intuition. This also doesn’t exclude analysis. You can use intuition to determine an initial path to explore, then take a more reasoned approach as you work out the details.
This kind of hinges on being able to evalute if your intuitive decisions were good or not. I suspect that an intuition-based decision is good if it can be evaluated and justified with reasoning, although not necessarily in the moment.
In time-sensitive situations, this would mean retroactively reviewing a situation. A good decision should have evidence that it was a reasonable course of action. We review our actions all the time. You’ve likely had multiple knee-jerk reactions, followed by, “I should have done…”.
In less time-sensitive but important situations, this would often mean listening to your intuition and then evaluating the proposed approach. This is something that (anecdotally) chess grandmasters do—their intuition suggests a move, then they spend more time to reason and confirm that that is actually a good move.
Teaching and Management
A quote that caught my eye:
Experienced managers often make the same mistake as Darlene, assuming that their subordinates can see the patterns that seem so obvious to them.
When I became a manager, I had a number of questions. What does a manager do? What is management? How should I manage? I’m projecting, but I think many new managers experience this.
If you try to read on this subject, you’ll likely come across ideas like servant leadership. You’ll also come across purposes of management, such as to deliver projects while also keeping your people happy (for a very broad definition of happy).
Management is a very subjective thing. It sometimes tries to present itself as objective, but that “objectivity” is usually built on a lot of subjectivity.
At any rate, it is clear that interacting with people is a crucial part of management. At the same time, precisely defining what you want out of these interactions is hard to do.
Managers often try to develop their people. They have several incentives to do so:
- It both sounds good and sounds like common sense.
- Managers believe development leads to promotion, which is good for people since it means both career development and more pay.
- Managers look good when their people get promoted.
However, evaluating development is difficult—both to do and to define.
Some people view getting promoted as a way to see if someone is developing. This is kind of a circular definition. This also makes it hard to explain why someone got promoted.
Some people try to evaluate development more objectively by going through various exercises. They’ll try to consider what a person is capable or not capable of. They might try to contrast people to highlight strengths or weaknesses.
My claim is that a manager should be trying to train peoples’ intuitions. A manager wants their people to have appropriate experiences to draw from when making decisions.
There are, roughly, three levels to this.
One, a person can ideally draw from their “experience bank” to pull up a nearly tailor-fit solution to the problem at hand. This is intuition working at its best. Of course, this is rare and should not be expected.
Two, a person can rely on their experiences to solve pieces of the problem at hand. These pieces are combined into an overall solution, which can be analyzed to see if it actually solves the problem. This “building block” approach is often what you’d want to see.
Third, a person has learned how to think about and approach foreign, unknown problems. This is where you don’t have a blueprint that you can draw on and must design the blueprint yourself. However, you can draw on how to think about designing a blueprint. This should occur rarely if someone has a lot of experience, but you’d want someone to be able to handle this kind of problem when it occurs.
I don’t think that this view is particularly novel. I think this is essentially what managers are already trying to do.
This intuition lens does, however, give a more precise and understandable way to approach and talk about someone’s development.
Scenario: Can person X handle task Y?
If your answer is a resounding yes, this would likely mean that person X’s intuition is at level one or two when it comes to the task. You believe that they’ve likely done something very similar before or they have enough familiarity with the underlying pieces.
If you’re very uncertain, you are likely skeptical that person X is at intuition level 2. Either they don’t have enough experiences, or they don’t seem to be able to draw on them. This also indicates that you are unsure about their general decision making ability (level 3).
Scenario: Person X needs to demonstrate more competency.
This likely means that someone has had exposure to the experiences they need, but they haven’t ingrained them enough to draw on them. You expect a task to be completed at level two (or one), but the person is just not comfortable enough with it yet.
This also suggests that you can break down this task further—what are the building blocks that don’t feel intuitive yet?
A nice side effect is that this lens may help someone see that a difficult task doesn’t indicate a personal failure. Some people view difficulties or setbacks very negatively—these things are “proof” that they suck. Reframing, the challenge isn’t to “stop sucking.” Instead, it’s to figure out and then develop the templates needed for the task at hand.
I’m only at chapter 3, but here Klein talks about people who make decisions under heavy time pressure. The hypothesis was that these people (firefighters) evaluate a very limited set of options (e.g. two options) and use the best one. The firefighters, however, claimed that they don’t evaluate any options—they just go with the course of action that comes to mind.
This seems paradoxical—how can you reliably do anything if you aren’t evaluating what you’re doing?
The explanation revolves around the word “evaluate.” The typical understanding is that evaluating involves coming up with pros and cons for a set of options, then taking the most attractive option.
The firefighters were instead imagining (“mentally simulating”) what they were about to do. Evaluating, but a different sense. They were subconsciously figuring out, “Will this work?”
In order to reasonably evaluate through imagination, you need to know how something works. You need a “mental model.” I suspect a key to intuition will be translating a “factual” mental model (based on math, diagrams, physics, etc.) into an “intuitive” mental model (that simply feels right or wrong).
When someone handles a situation in an odd or inappropriate way, this likely means that they’re lacking an accurate, underlying model. This implies that a key to intuition is not just exposure to a variety of experiences, but also some mental representation of what’s going on.1
While I’ve (re)presented these ideas in terms of decision making and management, it seems like these concepts apply to many scenarios in day-to-day life. In particular, it seems like many (most? all?) difficulties are just a lack of intuition—a lack of experience. This provides a lot of potential both for developing intuition and for benefitting from it.
- Shower thought: what we consider someone to be “smart,” we actually mean that they are able to build up a working mental model without needing to have numerous trial-and-error experiences. [return]