Data vs. Intuition

Photo of Raazi Imam

analysis blackboard board 355952In life and in business, we all have to make difficult decisions. How much information do we consider before deciding something that isn’t clearly black and white? How much do we rely on our "gut intuition"? What should we leverage more? Data? Or intuition?

My answer is simple: rely on both.

Great decision making is not about leveraging one over the other, but instead using them in tandem.

Analytical decision making goes hand-in-hand with utilizing data. Facts are concrete and give us useful jumping boards to start on. But then intuition comes into play. And this is where we look at patterns, what is right and wrong, should we go left or right, etc. To neglect one would be an error. To utilize both is strategic.

Data is black and white and incredibly useful but it does not paint the entire picture. This is where intuition comes into play. Intuition can be described as something perceived or instinctual rather than conscious and derived directly from data. In many cases, intuition is an outcome of deep experience in a specific space. That experience is what allows someone to look at a complex problem and make a quick decision without necessarily explaining or divulging lots of information and insight. An article in the MIT Sloan Review put it this way: "For many complex decisions, all the data in the world can’t trump the lifetime’s worth of experience that informs one’s gut feeling, instinct or intuition."

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argues that human beings are innately good at finding patterns and reading complex situations effectively with limited information and in a short period of time. He describes this as the power of "thin slicing" - the ability for humans to look at a small amount of data and draw accurate conclusions using a combination of experience and intuition.

The best consultants are able to pair relevant data and information that their clients require to feel confident with the consultants' own experience and insight. This is to provide a more compelling solution than one that relied on purely data and facts. Anyone can look at data and make conclusions, but not everyone has the experience to apply intuition. That’s what makes our consultants unique and valuable.

Sound decision making is an art and requires a combination of accurate information, an understanding of emotional bias or prejudice, good communication, and a willingness to collaborate and trust. As consultants, if we can approach both business and human challenges with this mindset, we have a higher likelihood of helping our clients navigate effectively.

To our clients, we act as guides, and partners on their transformation journey. We want to be as data-driven when evaluating problems and proposing solutions as possible. However, rarely are complex business decisions straightforward and without the intervention of experience.

Can intuitive decision making be learned or improved? I believe so. In fact, cognitive models at multiple institutions like MIT are continuously being developed to help us understand intuition and decision-making. MIT's Gary Klein has developed one such model called the Recognition Primed Decision Model, which describes how our brains apply familiar patterns and signals to rapidly make decisions about new information - applying heuristics based on past experiences and instantly connecting similarities between the current problem and problems solved in the past.

The more experience you have in a specific field, the stronger your intuition will be. If your experience is spread thin across different areas of work, you may want to rely more on data for decision making. If your experience is strong in a particular field, you can have more confidence in leaning on your intuition.

At the end of the day, the question shouldn’t be: data or intuition? It should be: how are you leveraging both?