Sometimes you have to trust your gut. There are even situations when following your instincts is the best approach. Rarely, however, is strategic decision making by an executive one of those times. In an interview in the current McKinsey Quarterly, two great scholars whose studies usually represent opposing views, agree that leaders' decisions based on intuition are usually not the wisest. Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his work in prospect theory, which deals with the counterintuitive choices make under uncertainty. Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition, studies intuition as a powerful factor in good decision making in high-pressure situations. Yet they agree that when in comes to executives in organizational decision making, intuition is overvalued.
Klein tells the Quarterly that intuition is only reliable when two critical criteria are present. First, the situation must has some structure and predictability -- that's the whole basis for intuition, he says. The other requirement is that there must be an opportunity for feedback, which helps execs strengthen their judgments and gain expertise. That said, in general Kahneman is wary of intuition: "you should not take your intuitions at face value." In fact near the close of the interview he states, "My advice would be to try to postpone intuition as much as possible."
Here are some of their insights that CIOs might take to heart:
Intuition and the danger of overconfidence
One of Kahneman's concerns about intuition in decision making is its tendency to feed overconfidence, which he mentions a few times during the conversation. "Overconfidence is a powerful source of illusions," he notes at one point.
This is especially true in leadership roles. Klein agrees, adding that "by the time executives get to high levels, they are good at making others feel confident in their judgment, even if there's no strong basis [for it]."
"In strategic decisions I'm worried about overconfidence," says Kahneman. In fact, it's often one of the flaws of executive hiring: "One of the real dangers of leader selection in many organizations [is that]leaders are selected for overconfidence. We associate leadership with decisiveness."
As he observes, "Most decision makers will trust their own intuitions because they think they see the situation clearly. It's a special exercise to question your own intuitions."
The practice of "premortem"
The "premortem" is Klein's answer to the postmortem. Instead of trying to analyze why a project failed, why not have that meeting before it starts? "The logic is that instead of showing people that you are smart because you can come up with a good plan," he explains, "you show you're smart by thinking of insightful reasons why this project might go south." Weaving the practice into the corporate culture would encourage a healthy competitive spirit that makes it rewarding to think in ways others haven't considered. "The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems," Klein contends.
Kahneman, who is so enthusiastic about Klein's premortem approach that he brought it up at Davos, believes "premortem on a plan that is about to be adopted won't cause it to be abandoned." Instead, he says, "it will probably be tweaked in ways that everybody will recognize as beneficial. So the premortem is a low-cost, high-payoff kind of thing."
The best time to intervene before intuition biases a decision
For Kahneman, "It's when you decide what information needs to be collected. That's an absolutely critical step," he says, because "if you're starting with a hypothesis and planning to collect information, make sure that the process is systematic and the information high quality. This should take place fairly early.
He adds that the whole exercise is pointless when the team knows what the leader wants to hear. The idea is "to create the possibility that people can discover that an idea [is lousy] early in the game, before the whole machinery is committed to it."
"What concerns me is the tendency to marginalize people who disagree with you at meetings," says Klein. "There's too much intolerance for challenge." Leaders often give lip service to valuing each team member's concerns: "My door is always open" -- that sort of thing. Yet we all know it's not always prudent to tell a leader just whatever's on our mind. "So when people raise an idea that doesn't make sense to you as a leader," Klein advises, "rather than ask what's wrong with them, you should be curious about why they're taking the position. Curiosity is a counterforce for contempt when people are making unpopular statements."
Why leaders continue to value intuition
It's no surprise that while most executives are interested -- genuinely -- in Kahneman's and Klein's ideas on intuition, they're not about to put them in action. Kahneman understands this reluctance. "Leaders know that any procedure they put in place is going to cause their judgment to be questioned...they're really not in the market to have their decisions and choices questioned."
Advice to senior executives
Kahneman closes the interview with a typically pragmatic final thought: "My single piece of advice would be to improve the quality of meetings -- that seems pretty strategic to improving the quality of decision making."