Understanding how something works is complicated. Imagine someone gives you a car engine…ok, they give you a car engine and also take away your cell phone. Then they put you in a garage and tell you that the engine runs, but it doesn’t run as well as it should. You can tell when the engine is running correctly because you’re given a device that measures the number of times the engine’s pistons cycle in a minute (I don’t know if such a device exists, but humor me). You are incentivized to fix this engine with a significant reward (like ice cream).
You have all the tools you need, an instruction manual for the engine, and…ok fine, a cell phone, but one that only connects to an intranet with information on the engine and allows you to call some mechanics for advice. I repeat, the cell phone does not allow you to access the social medias.
After about 30 minutes of trying to login into Twitter and realizing its futile, you decide to get to work.
Given this task, most people who don’t have familiarity with an engine would probably spend some time on the phone with a mechanic. They’d peruse the engine schematics and instructions, and they’d probably also practice using the measuring device. There would also be other things to try like watching the engine run for a while. This is likely to occur in a different order depending on the person.
At some point they will have gathered enough information to make a decision about where to start. Should they take apart the whole engine? Focus on tweaking some part of the engine involved in the cycle time? Maybe they’ll just smack it with a wrench to see if that works? Where they start doesn’t really matter. The key is they have enough information to make a decision about where to start, they are unlikely to make a correct fix on their first try, and so they’ll need to measure the result and then decide what to do next.
Organizations are essentially engines within engines. The components work together in a specific way and you can adjust them and tweak them to try and change the result derived from the current arrangement of components. Similarly, you’re unlikely to nail it on your first try and the opportunity for perfection does not exist.
So then a question: if you have the tools, an expert resource, a manual, a way to measure your outcomes, and the ability to adjust your process after measuring, when is it appropriate to rely solely on your intuition?
Alex Lodato says
This is a great essay Andy! Thanks for sharing.
I like the analogy. To me intuition can only be solely relied upon when time is against you and failure is looming. In doing something, you avoid indecision. In my experience, intuition can take your life as quick as it can save it. Intuition has to be built on individual experiences over time or through exercises. Suppose the same example you’ve outlined here but substitute in a seasoned mechanic and tell her she only has 1hr to increase the efficiency of the engine by 10%. In this context, intuition may be more useful because her experience might allow her to diagnose the problem more quickly and get her to a solution faster. Leveraging resources is always a better bet when time allows. Intuition should provide nuance to the decision rather than be the force behind it. But intuition alone, in my opinion, is only useful when there is no other option which is typically time and/or resource restrictive. Beating your competition to market without enough data or experience on the team. Pivoting your startup quickly to make the most of what is left of your cash without data or customers (scary!!). This is why reading is so important. You don’t have to have lived through World War II to learn from it. General Mattis famously once said “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” I love this quote because it speaks directly to your essay on intuition. Build your intuition through experience, leverage it when the information isn’t clear, but don’t substitute intuition for resources when you have them. That’s negligence.
@Alex – I love your point about timelines combined with looming failure. It makes me think of first-mover advantages (making mistakes fast is better than doing the right thing after eating up time), and I completely agree that given constraints, the answer changes.
Also love the Mattis quote, and haven’t heard that before and the idea of translating knowledge from books/other sources, also a great insight.