Where fools rush in.

Intuition and the long game

In some pre-meeting chatter yesterday (you can guess at the topic) I found myself remembering the quote: “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” But when asked the obvious question, I discovered I couldn’t actually remember who’d first said it.

Was it Oscar Wilde? Henry David Thoreau? It sounded like something Wilde would say, and my intuition told me it was probably him, but as is so often the case, it turns out that intuition can be a fickle temptress.

And I should know. Lots of great leaders I’ve worked with have relied on their intuition. It helps them cut to the chase and make fast decisions, often with very incomplete information. They can see what will work and what won’t, way in advance, because they always seem to have an innate feel for how things will play out.

It is one of our most powerful assets when it comes to pace – an assimilation of years of experience with vast amounts of subtle data, continuously and subconsciously collected, that can help us decide our actions and reactions almost instantaneously.

And the more success we see from intuitive decisions, the more confident we become – not just that we will get it right every time, but that even if we’re wrong, we’ll be able to rapidly adjust and correct the situation.

Iteration; start now, move fast and learn; become agile and empowered; be firstest and fastest; pace is everything – all of these beliefs, many of which I’ve often encouraged, play to the strength of intuitive teams, just as they strike fear into the hearts of reflective thinkers and rigorous planners.

But business is a long game, and in the long game raw pace isn’t everything.

Most intuitive leaders struggle to develop any strategic thinkers among their team. They can develop very capable people to execute their decisions, but because they’re rarely able to articulate how those decisions are made, they can’t teach others how to make them. Every big call has to go through the boss.

And when intuitive people clash on ideas, we often find that neither can explain their position, and what might have been a great partnership thus dissolves through “creative differences”.

Intuition is also a thoroughfare for biases – we see this on social media all the time: something feels right so we believe it, even after it’s been debunked: ‘Well… it’s exactly the kind of thing he would have said”, we tell ourselves.

And we see it in the Boardroom through selective attention to data, reinterpreting insights to fit with the narrative that feels right, even if big chunks of the data say it’s wrong.

All of this is compounded in a rapidly changing environment, or when a leader moves from one business or division to another; one in which much of their experience, the basis for their intuition, is no longer relevant. Even the smartest people can find themselves on the peak of Dunning Kruger.

And thus, in an unexpected break from previous form, I’ve found myself increasingly over the last few months, in this period of rapid change and unpredictability, advising business leaders to briefly lift their foot off the accelerator, step back from pure pace, and to check their intuition.

Not to discard it, but to challenge it. To take note of that instant reaction, but to put it to one side. To take a couple of days – nothing in the grand scheme of things – to reflect, and to seek counter opinions. Even to argue with me in support of an alternate view to their natural one.

And what I’ve found is that probably three times in four, leaders will come back to their intuitive view. Sometimes with a more nuanced perspective, sometimes exactly as they’d defined it in the first place.

But one time in four, they will change their thinking, and come back with a far better plan. The aphorism “measure twice, cut once” has saved far more time over the centuries than it ever cost, and it’s as good a guide now as it ever was.

Oh, and that quote? Turns out it was Aesop, the ancient Greek tortoise and hare chap. Still as relevant now, on both counts, as he was 2,500 years ago.

Mind you, it is exactly the sort of thing Wilde would have said…