My Gut Tells Me You May Not Like This Post

albert-einstein-intuitionAll of you out there who blog know there are some posts that everyone else in the world is going to think are rubbish. Absolute rubbish. (You’ll just have to imagine my British accent there.) Today’s may or may not be one of those for you.

Data is a thing. (No, Trekkies, not that Data.)Celebrity City

Intuition is a thing.

Hunches are things.

Logic is a thing.

Rational thinking is a thing.

Information is a thing. (Al Gore invented a superhighway for it, you know)

roasteriefrontObviously I’ve over-simplified the above, but the point is that all of these “things” are what we use to make decisions every day, be it as leaders; team members; family members; friends; neighbors; patrons at local eateries like Foo’s Fabulous Frozen Custard, the Roasterie or Dodge City Distillery; or consumers at online retailers like Amazon or Zappos. Heck, we use those things to determine our philosophical outlook on life itself to some degree, which determines the lens through which we view reality in many ways.

And just because it’s important to me — please note that we talked about frozen custard and philosophy in the same paragraph above. On what other blog….foosfabulous

The tricky part with all of those things above is that they’re interrelated and often interdependent, and there’s no universal standard that tells us how much weight we’re to assign to any of those particular things. What if logic seems to tell me one thing, but the numbers don’t appear to bear it out? What if the data points in one direction, but your intuition is pulling you in the other? What if all the experts are saying to do this or that, but you have a hunch that this other thing — different that the this-or-that that the experts have suggested — would be an even better solution?

And there’s the rub.

Because here’s where we arbitrarily start ranking those things, if not overtly, certainly in a de facto sense. You’ve seen it happen a dozen times at least. I know I have. You’re sitting in a meeting and some version of the following conversation takes place.

BizPerson1: So we can clearly see from the previous 312 slides that the data points in a pretty obvious direction. People will notice us more if we wear tin foil hats in our locations.

BizPerson2: Wow. So according to your data, people with tin foil hats on were noticed almost twice as much as people without tin foil hats? Numbers don’t lie, people.

BizPerson3: Um, I hope the numbers and data will pardon me, but my gut tells me that having our teams wear tin foil hats is a terrible idea.

BizPerson2: Were you not paying attention to BizPerson1’s presentation? All the data, all the information — it all indicates that people in tin foil hats get noticed.

BizPerson1: Yeah. Where’s your data, BizPerson3? Hm? Got any actual data to back up your assertion?

BizPerson3: No, I have not done extensive research around how people respond to other people wearing tin foil hats, but I do tend to have a good feel for human “stuff,” and my intuition tells me that the tinfoil hat strategy would make us the laughing-stock of…well…maybe the whole world. I know your data says one thing, but I’m telling you — don’t do it.

BizPerson1: Well, I’m afraid we can’t make business decisions based on how you feel. Numbers don’t lie.

An exaggerated example of course, but its non-exaggerated cousin is played out all over the place every day. Now before you freak out and throw the square root of 417 at me, I’m not at all saying that numbers don’t matter or that data isn’t important. They do and it is. What I’m saying is that people have intuition for a reason. Will they always be right? Nope. Will your numbers always enable you to make the correct business decisions? Nope. But it doesn’t always have to be an either/or thing. They can be used in concert. And sometimes you just have to have the stones to go with your gut.

One of my favorite “coachings” I’ve ever received happened a few months back. I can’t remember what exactly prompted the discussion, but my boss told me not to back off my intuition. He told me use it and go with it because it was a strength of mine.

You see, sometimes I think we unwittingly buy into the lie that everything we need to know is always in the numbers. But if that were true, relationships would be a math equation and emotion would be a Sudoku thingy; there wouldn’t be gutsy risks — just extremely well-calculated ones.

As leaders, we’ve got to do a better job at learning who on our teams just seems to have that “thing” where their gut seems to be right a lot of the time. Their instincts tend to be right, even if it seems unlikely that they would be. Their intuition operates with clarity; for them it’s the equivalent of all your studies and numbers and data.

But that means us too, as leaders, need to have the guts to go with our intuition sometimes instead of hiding behind the numbers. Hiding behind the numbers is the easy way, because even if it goes wrong, it’s easy for us to say that with the information we had it seemed pretty clear that that was what we should have tried blah blah blah.

What’s harder is making a decision because you feel like it’s the one that needs to be made. Your gut tells you it’s the right one. You won’t have the luxury of hiding behind the numbers if you’re wrong, but at least you’re actually thinking and making decisions instead of doing what the numbers tell you to do.

22 thoughts on “My Gut Tells Me You May Not Like This Post

  • Great points about trusting your “gut”. My wife and I have an agreement about our “gut” telling us something. We are not allowed to ignore it.

    What I’ve noticed in the business world is that if I do have a “gut” feeling, I may have to help educate/inform others as to how they could come around/get on board. I may to help create a logical thought plan, or a compelling argument that helps them relate/understand.

    • That’s a good point, David. I’m not saying that everyone else just needs to accept someone’s gut feeling as the end-all, but at the same time it shouldn’t be dismissed as “just” someone’s intuition. Like you said, it needs to be worked through at that point.

  • What a fantastic post! The given example is hilarious!
    I’m a big believer of gut’s based decision making. It has always worked for me.
    As living creatures, we have so many “real” sensors in our bodies, that collect information all the time. So our gut feeling is somehow based on some “real” Big Data, captured over the years & processed internally.
    Some people can interpret this data better than others & hence can make excellent decisions simply based on gut feeling.


    • “Gut-based decision making.” There’s a new term for me. 🙂

      Again, I’m not saying you always make decisions based exclusively on gut feeling; often it’s best to use it in concert with other things. But there are times when intuition is going to be in conflict with those other things, and therein lies your decision point.

  • Thanks for this important post, Matt. Gut feelings and intution have always had a place in invention, innovation and business. It’s good to see them getting some grounded press!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. You’re exactly right about invention and innovation, and I wish I’d spoken to those in my post. I didn’t even think of that angle until I read your comment, but that’s a great point.

  • Great post Matt! As a numbers person I couldn’t agree with you more. There is nothing more challenging than persuading away from the direction data points, but it sure is important to do so.

    • It seems to differ from person to person, right? Some people’s intuition seems to be right on most of the time, while others…well, perhaps it’s just not their thing, which is totally fine.

      And yeah, it’s especially cool because my boss is definitely more of numbers/data sort of guy. I mean he’s got a heart and all that, but when making a business case for something, he wants to see those things. At the same time, he recognizes that my strength for whatever reason is in that intuitive realm and so he wants me to roll with it. Another thing I love about where I work.

  • Great post! Very important to listen to your gut and follow your intuition. Even though it’s a “feeling,” it’s still formed by your past experiences, your ability to assess, and your knowledge. It’s definitely less fuzzy when we know it’s grounded in concrete reality.

    • It’s funny, because I can remember specific times when I had a gut feeling about a thing, but basically told myself that there was no way that could be right and so subsequently ignored it. Turns out that gut feeling was right.

  • My job is to influence what people think using numbers. But I NEVER “put my faith in the numbers.” I come to conclusions based on my experience and intuition, INFORMED by numbers. I then use “the numbers” to convince others that I’ m right. The extent to which that works differs by person.

    The problem comes when your intuition conflicts with someone else’s. How do you resolve the conflict? You turn to the numbers. Problem is, the numbers don’t neceesarily represent some undisputed truth.

    Although I haven’t actually heard the song played in years, hardly a day goes by that, when working with “numbers” I don’t think of the Talking Heads song that goes:

    “Facts all come with a point of view. Facts don’t do what you want them to.”

    • That’s a fantastic point, Ron. Thanks for making it. I love the way your framed your first paragraph. I used to think you were a straight data guy when I first met you, but after hearing you speak I knew you weren’t that. You used data, but you also relied on your gut, your hunches, your intuition; and you propped those things up with data.

      Thanks for the comment. Hope you’ve been well.

  • Matt,

    Gut trumps data every time. Kill the data and go with your gut. We often know the decision that should be made without spending unnecessary time on data and blow-hard dialogue.


    • You know I agree, but in the world in which you and I live, it’s just not that way. It’s often to the other extreme.

  • Great title~ made me read the post :O) Love that it’s not an either/or thing. Every time I’ve ignored my intuition things run a muck a muck a muck! Looking at “things” from all sides now, including feelings.

  • Humans are emotional animals. We may look at and be informed by data, but we make decisions based on our “gut”, our emotional response. Business seems to have forgotten this in some ways, but you will find that the most successful business people out there make their most important decisions based on their “gut”, not the data.

  • Fab post and left me wondering, is the reason people fear listening to their gut response is because it’s feels to undefinable. I would suggest that these responses are formed due to a series of observations from many forms of data and therefore the leadership skill required is to identify and translate these for others to buy in to decisions formed this way.

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