Should Executives Trust Their Gut?

Last Updated Sep 3, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Should You Trust Your IntuitionExactly what role does intuition play in our decision-making and business success? Is it a major factor in scientific discovery and technological innovation? And do we ignore that little voice inside our heads - warning us to be cautious - when we make egregious errors in judgment?

Way back in 1977, my girlfriend's father told me semiconductors were going to be huge. Without any rational thought, I put my butt on the line and went back to school to get a master's degree in electrical engineering. That was, without a doubt, the single most important and correct decision of my entire life. And to this day, I still don't know why I made it.

Intuition is sort of a vague concept. Which is fitting since, by definition, it's "the ability to attain direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference." To me, that says "knowledge without thought." Sounds almost mystical, doesn't it? Well, it's not. Intuition is now recognized as a powerful factor in human decision-making.

It's also probably a vestige of an evolutionary survival mechanism. If you were a caveman, for example, and you sensed danger, you would hide in a cave and avoid being eaten by some blood-crazed saber-toothed tiger. And since you survived, you would then reproduce, etc. At least that's the theory.

But even if that's true, intuition is probably on the decline, owing to our increasing dependence on logical reasoning and technological innovation. Our relatively recent addiction to gadgets, social media, and instantaneous communication certainly doesn't help, either. You can't sense or intuit anything when you're distracted.

That's sad, but it may also be tragic. There is at least anecdotal evidence that intuition plays a significant role in scientific, technological, and business breakthroughs. For example:

  • Why, from early on and against all logic, was Albert Einstein obsessed with light? And he certainly had no inkling that his passion for light would inexorably drive him to one of the greatest discoveries in the history of physics, relativity.
  • Why did Bill Gates ask IBM for non-exclusivity and per-unit royalties, instead of traditional development fees, for delivering the first personal computer operating system? That seemingly benign request would inevitably make Gates the richest man in the world and Microsoft the most valuable company in America.
  • What exactly possessed entrepreneur Mark Cuban to sell to Yahoo for $5.9 billion in stock and immediately turn around and hedge that stock against a market crash, all at the peak of the dot-com bubble? How many thousands of entrepreneurs, VCs, and institutional investors rode the market down, losing trillions in investment capital along the way?
  • And how about Steve Jobs' singular ability to develop product after product that uniquely appeals to consumers? That can't just be about technology and reasoning. Speaking of Jobs, how exactly did he know to dump his underwater stock options in favor of a restricted award, enabling him to dodge a bullet in Apple's stock-option backdating scandal that claimed its former CFO and General Counsel?
But all that's just one side of the coin; the flip-side is just as intriguing. How about intuition that we fail to heed, that little voice inside our heads that, for whatever reason, we choose to ignore?

We often discuss brilliant executives that make what seem to be completely ill-conceived and out-of-character decisions. Like top executives from IBM, AMD, Intel, and McKinsey destroying their careers by blabbing confidential information to a hedge fund manager at Galleon. Or Jerry Yang accepting the CEO job at Yahoo, a job he must have known he wasn't qualified to perform. I mean, I knew it, and I'm sure he's way smarter than I am.

I can go on and on with examples of once-great leaders letting hubris and overblown ego overrule what they must surely feel: an instinct to be cautious because what they're about to do is a huge mistake. To me, that's tragic. It's also a word to the wise: humans are capable of both rational thought and intuitive feelings. They're each valuable and ignoring either one can be perilous.

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