Intuition

Intuition makes us react automatically on common situations. Our sub-consciousness provides the solutions for these situations the moment we need them. We live intuitively. When we are hungry, do we first collect all the possible solutions of alleviating our hunger, evaluating which solution provides the best Return on Investment and then choose which option to use, based on documented criteria? By the time we are done with our analysis we may be starved to death. In practice we simply find something to eat and eat it.

Intuition is fed by experience. Since we are born, we learn from experience to intuitively avoid bad situations and seek nice situations. If we enter a room, we intuitively know how to move around, without bumping into the tables. The more experience we gather, the more complex situations we can intuitively handle.

Intuition is not perfect. If intuition would be perfect, everything we do would be perfect. Not everything we do is perfect, so apparently our intuition sometimes points us into the wrong direction. Probably we don't have the right experience for all of the situations we encounter in our projects. Many things we should do to make the project a success are counter-intuitive. That's why they don't automatically happen.

Intuition is free, we always carry it with us. We cannot even switch it off. It's so strong that it's almost impossible to go against it.

An example of a typical counter-intuitive situation is a software project with a team of 20 people going too slowly. If the deadline is really hard, the usual intuitive move to go faster is adding people, which probably will make the project running even more slowly. The counter-intuitive move: decreasing the number of people in the project, is so incredible, that hardly any project manager even dares to contemplate this solution. Still it would make the project probably running faster (Brooks' Law, 1975).
Another example you may recognize happened when I was sitting behind my desk thinking how to solve a particular problem. My boss came in and asked "What are you doing?" "I'm thinking", I said. His intuitive response was "Do something!" Was he stupid? No, probably not. But his intuition drove him into the wrong direction.

In order to improve the performance of people in projects, new experience has to be created to improve the intuitive response. A Project Coach1 can help to provide new experience.

Intuition versus a Quality Manual with written procedures. Procedures are formalized best practice: to our current knowledge, this is the best way to do it. Documenting procedures in a Quality Manual is not bad at all, but in practice the document is hardly read by the people who should execute the proper procedures and even if the person knows the procedure, it's a discipline risk (see next) that the procedure is not always properly followed. Once we put the procedure into the intuition of the people, it will be executed "automatically", without the need for "following" the written procedure. Still we should make sure that at the same time we also learn to apply continuous improvement, so that we learn to challenge our intuitive reactions all the time, in order to continuously tune these reactions to the actual situation, which may change over time. Challenging our intuitive reactions itself is a counter intuitive activity!

When I arrive at a customer's reception hall, I often see the ISO-9000 diploma hanging on the wall, which should indicate that at this company quality is produced. Looking at the diploma on the wall I innocently ask: "Do you know the size of the quality manual?" In most cases people don't know. If the diploma is on the wall, it is supposed to imply that every person in the company knows the content of the quality manual and if they cannot even describe the size of it, they probably have never seen it. Conclusion: the diploma is fake. "Yes, but we have it electronically!" "OK, you could have answered that." "Besides, do you know where to find it?" is then enough to check whether they could know the contents or not. When it is written in a Quality Manual, it doesn't mean that all people know what is written, let alone do what is written.

When it's in the intuition, things go automatically. That is not to say that written procedures are not necessary. After all, only when you write it down, you can discuss it and change it.

In many cases the head knows, the heart not. We think that we make decisions logically with our mind. However, we mostly decide with our hart (or call it gut-feeling or emotions, fed by our sub-consciousness). If you think that this is wrong, it actually proves the point. Logically we think that people should decide with their mind, but in practice we see people react emotionally, with their intuition, fed by their perceived experiences. All we can do is feeding the intuition with our thinking and trying to bias or intuitive decision process into the right direction.

Sleeping on it. Recent research (Dijksterhuis2) indicates that with complex problems, logical thinking produces worse decisions than 'decisions' made by intuition, because our mind isn't capable of balancing more than a few elements at the time. With logical thinking we often focus on less relevant factors, 'forgetting' some more important factors. However, we can make an even better decision if we first think logically, set a deadline to decide, in the meantime do something entirely different and then decide. Apparently our sub-consciousness went on processing when we did the other thing and presented us with a better solution. Sub-conscious processing proves to be much more powerful and more capable of complex correlations than our conscious thinking. Hence the saying that we should "sleep a night on it".

The users of our system. The designers of the system should be aware of the power and the risks of working on intuition during the project. We can try to adapt our behavior to producing ever better results. The users of our systems also use intuition when being confronted with our system, but we cannot influence their behavior. We have to analyze how they actually behave, check whether our assumptions about their behavior are right and if not, adapt. If the users incorrectly use our system, in principle the system is wrong, not the users.

  1. This may look like selling the concept of a Project Coach. It is. Whether this is a coach from inside or outside your organization is not the point. If you have internal coaches, great. If you don't, hire a coach to show how to do it and to coach the coaches to become self-sufficient quickly.
  2. Dijksterhuis, 2007. Het slimme onbewuste (The smart sub-consciousness, in Dutch). Bert Bakker. ISBN 9789035129689.