The Case Against Intuition

By Nat Greene

The following is an original blog post, based on lessons and concepts in Nat Greene’s new book Stop Guessing

When facing tough problems, many leaders encourage their team’s ideas to spring forth in the hopes that one or two really powerful ones will emerge. Whether it’s brainstorming, ideating, or some other form of creative problem solving, leaders often use some sort of structure to stimulate their team’s intuition; using intuition is also encouraged for individual contributors that are stuck trying to solve a hard problem they’re tackling solo. This is based on the idea that a team’s intelligence and experience combine to bring about sparks of insight or intuition, leading to an elegant solution.

While using intuition is simple, and for a team it can be highly stimulating, there is little evidence to suggest it will help you solve your hard problem. To understand why, let’s first understand what “intuition” means. There are two definitions:

  • “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.”
  • “A thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.”

Why Intuition Doesn’t Work

Using “intuition” suggests everything you need to know about a problem is already in your head. Instead of a structured investigation into a problem, “using intuition” means, in the end, you’re just guessing about the solution, the root cause, or the next step.

The reason guessing doesn’t work is that you don’t know everything you need to know in order to solve a hard problem. A system with a hard problem can have hundreds or thousands of levers that control its behavior; the problem may have hundreds or thousands of possible root causes. Trying to guess the right one with intuition is simply highly unlikely to work. Studies from MIT show that using intuition, rather than a structured problem-solving approach, leads to lower-quality solutions, and doesn’t even bring them about faster. As a leader, you shouldn’t stand for this.

The False Dichotomy

The reason leaders advocate for using “intuition” is that they believe in a false dichotomy. If we refer back to the definition, intuition is stacked against “conscious reasoning,” which suggests that conscious reasoning is the alternative method by which one can solve a problem. Sitting around trying to just reason through a problem isn’t going to get you far, either.

But problem-solving shouldn’t be done in isolation in your brain, or in a conference room. Don’t ask your team to depend on intuition or conscious reasoning to solve your problem, any more than Sherlock Holmes would sit around thinking in order to crack a case.

The alternative is to encourage them to out there and investigate the problem. Here are 3 behaviors that you can coach your team to use to solve problems much more effectively:

Embrace Your Ignorance: Help your team understand that they don’t yet know enough, even collectively, to solve the problem. They need to ask questions–especially questions that sound “stupid” and challenge collective wisdom–in order to learn the information they need to solve the problem.

Smell the Problem: Some of the questions your team needs to ask revolve around understanding the nature of the problem itself. Have them ask questions that reveal objective, observable facts about the problem–questions that don’t allow assumptions to be baked in. Lead them to determine the pattern of the problem–when it does and doesn’t happen, and under what circumstances.

Dig Into the Fundamentals: The other questions your team needs to ask revolve around the system itself. What scientific forces control the problem? For the problematic system, how is it designed to control whether a problem exists or not? Help your team overcome their fear of becoming intimately familiar with the system and the science behind it. Understanding what’s really going on inside the system is critical to solving the problem.

To help your team solve hard problems, don’t coach them on using intuition, or set them up with creative exercises. Coach them instead to get out there and start asking some great questions, and to adopt problem solving behaviors that will help them get results.

 

Nathaniel Greene is the co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers. Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program.

 

About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. For over two decades, Treasurer has worked with thousands of leaders across the globe, strengthening their leadership influence. Bill is the author of best-selling books Courage Goes To Work and A Leadership Kick in the Ass. He is also the author of Leaders Open Doors, the royalties of which are being donated to programs that support children with special needs. » Learn More

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