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This article appeared in July 2020, in Romanian, in Biz Magazine

Despite the mistrust we have towards it, managerial intuition is a valuable tool for making decisions when it springs from experience and if it is doubled by a rational approach. Intuition is not the opposite of reflection, they are rather complementary systems that work best together.

I thank Andreea Roşca for giving me, in a recent discussion, the idea of ​​this article, which I illustrate with lessons told by several leaders of organizations and which is meant to encourage managers to listen and cultivate their intuition.

Unbeknownst to each other, several CEOs recently told me that they are consciously trying to base their business decisions more on intuition. And it intrigued me. For some, the decision came after they’ve suppressed and even disregarded their intuition for a long time (“I fought very hard with my instinct, telling myself:  stop the nonsense, you don’t feel I don’t know what”, as an executive director told me), but they later noticed that if they had listened to it, they would’ve avoided a lot of costly mistakes (another leader told me that “every time I didn’t listen to my gut feeling, I blew it”).

Coming from the opposite direction, but with the same determination to listen more to his intuition, there is an entrepreneur with a very rigorous, data-driven decision-making process who, until recently, stared at the businessmen he appreciates observing how they made decisions based on instinct so quickly, “pulling from the hip“.

After several decisions proved to be very good, better than his own, the entrepreneur decided to put more value on instinct. Finally, another CEO considers his intuition an indispensable tool for making decisions, on equal footing with reflection: “for me, the great advantage is that the intuitive part is quite well aligned with the rational part, I don’t have as many struggles as other people.”

Unfortunately, managerial intuition suffers from a bad image and a lack of credibility. The classical paradigm of the perfectly rational man has wrongly led to the isolation of intuition in the same category as tasseography. Although its value in decision-making is confirmed by countless scientific research, in practice it takes courage to publicly acknowledge that you also base your strategy on instinct.

Dane and Pratt (2007) give the best definition of managerial intuition: “Emotionally charged judgments that are born of fast, unconscious, and holistic associations“. Or, as another manager I spoke to said, “intuition is when you like an idea“. Although we are rather culturally programmed to think antagonistically, mind versus heart, reason, emotions, intuition, and subconscious mechanisms are actually subsystems that work very well together.

The most famous example of this is a case from 30 years ago, presented by Professor Antonio Damasio. Elliot (obviously a pseudonym), a successful businessman, underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. The surgery was successful, and the subsequent evaluation certified that no cognitive function was affected. His IQ remained in the top 5%.

However, his ability to make decisions almost completely disappeared. He weighed every decision, important or not, on all sides, ad infinitum, without being able to reach a conclusion. This chronic indecision caused him failure after failure in his professional and personal life, without any doctor being able to identify a pathological cause.

Until he reached out to Professor Damasio, who had the idea to test his emotional response and noticed that Elliot felt nothing for any of the options presented to him. Damasio postulated that this emotional lack blocks his decision system and generated the hypothesis of somatic markers, according to which the emotions of the moment in front of the options we have and the way they are reflected in our body (increased pulse, etc.) are a main ingredient in decision making.

Intuition is the most interesting mechanism by which emotion and judgment meet to generate good solutions based on experience: our subconscious recognizes a pattern in the situation that needs to be resolved, a pattern it has encountered before, gives us the idea and seasons it with a strong emotion, like the one that made Archimedes shout “evrika!”. Herbert Simon, the father of the decision-making discipline, offers the best metaphor for the way in which managerial intuition uses our experience to propose solutions.

The great chess masters efficiently decide what to move because, unlike beginners, they don’t analyze the position of each piece, but look at the whole board as a pattern and compare it with others (many, on average 50,000) stored in their memory – old games that they played or studied. The subconscious does this quickly, finds what move was successful in similar situations and proposes it, intuitively, without the player knowing what actually happened to him.

In the same way, an experienced manager subconsciously identifies classes of similar situations and intuitively finds solutions. The fact that intuition helps us access databases that we are unaware of was also intuited by one of the managers I talked to.

He took things further, showing that decisions made intuitively are not just based on data, but they are easier to put into practice because we believe in them more: “In the subconscious there are some data based on which the instinct comes and tells you more to the left, not to the right. The moment you feel it, and you feel it in your being, it comes with a degree of assumption that pushes you to give everything to make that thing happen”.

The problem is that intuition is effective especially in the environment in which we developed our experience. I wouldn’t have much confidence in the intuition of an experienced surgeon when deciding, for example, how to run a hospital. Given that the hustle and bustle created by the pandemic has completely changed the business environment, an intuitive decision taken today might fail because the situations may seem similar, but in fact the context is very different.

Intuitive solutions must always, but especially in this volatile situation, be validated by analysis. One CEO described this validation very well: “intuition comes first, like magic; then, if you want to certify your intuition, you take the numbers, you look at them, and that’s how your magic is certified”.

In the discussion I mentioned, Andreea Roşca asked me what we can do to develop our intuition. I kept meditating on this question and I think there is a way to train our intuition, the one suggested by Ray Dalio in his book Principles: to develop our sense of identifying classes of situations, asking ourselves, in the face of each problem, what class it belongs to, or, in Dalio’s words, “what is this a type of?” and then to rationally validate if the solution found fits the whole class. Perhaps in this way we will be able to have more confidence in our intuition and use it more often as a tool for managerial decision making.

Radu Atanasiu teaches Thinking and Deciding in Business at Maastricht School of Management Romania and Critical Thinking at The Entrepreneurship Academy, is a business angel and founded volunteering platform.

MSM Romania opened the registrations for the 11th Executive MBA generation (one and a half years, starting on November 13, 2020) and for the 12th Fast Track generation (short program – 4 months, in Romanian, starting on October 9, 2020). More details on

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