Intuition is the sharpest sword in the decision-maker’s arsenal, but that blade certainly cuts both ways.
On the one hand, a large body of research — from academia to Malcolm Gladwell — indicates that our guts can make faster, smarter decisions than deliberate analysis can in certain situations. On the other hand, some of history’s greatest blunders were the result of someone’s misguided intuition.
But in an age of real-time analytics, is human intuition becoming an obsolete decision-making tool? Not at all.
As any seasoned project manager can attest, reality can sometimes evolve rapidly and in unpredictable ways, which is something no decision-making framework can fully anticipate. Add to that mix the great expectations clients can impose, and you have a recipe for stalled projects without the guidance of someone who can make smart decisions on the fly.
That’s where intuition shines.
Fortunately, intuition is something project managers can actively develop over time. But before we can discuss the cultivation and application of intuition, we must first explore the relationship between project management, leadership and intuition.
The Need for Intuitive Decision Making in Project Management
“Leadership” is the word that brings intuition and project management together. This is an essential trait that any project manager must develop.
Yes, project managers must demonstrate leadership by being able to effectively bring together groups of people — as Russell Kenrick, managing director at professional development company ILX, points out — but they must also be able to anticipate problems and act upon unfolding realities.
“When timeline or budget or feature changes inevitably occur, projects managers who panic will turn ripples into tidal waves,” The Nerdery’s Ted Carlson tells CIO magazine. “Skillful project managers adjust their plans, offer options and plot a new course to success.”
In other words, PMs must draw upon the knowledge they have, then make big-picture decisions in real time to keep a project on track.
Some of that knowledge comes from external sources — databases, client inputs, stakeholder meetings, etc. Some of that knowledge, however, comes from an internal source. As Judit Nuszpl at the Leadership & Flow blog writes, an intuitive leader knows how to call up that wisdom when making a decision.
These leaders, Nuszpl says,
- recognize patterns as they’re developing,
- recognize body language and other nonverbal cues in other people,
- are comfortable taking measured risks,
- admit the limits of their own understanding of a situation,
- and are able to detach their own desires for something to happen from what their intuition tells them.
With time and practice, a good project manager will be able to hone these skills until their intuition functions as a reliable sixth sense.
How to Develop Your Own Intuitive Sixth Sense
As with any skill, intuition gets stronger through repetition. The more experience you have, the more training you go through and the more you learn through practiced study, the more informed your gut will be when you need it to guide you through a decision.
But as consultant Tres Roeder points out, there are a couple of other important ways to development this sixth sense:
- Make time to reflect. “The first step towards intuition is to do nothing,” Roeder writes. “Literally, try not to do anything. Create quiet time for yourself. Relax in a comfortable setting. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Clear your mind. Stillness facilitates intuition.”
- Learn to be more aware. Use that time of reflection to understand your own internal decision-making processes, and also study other people, Roeder says. Watch how they process the world around them, how it affects their behaviors, and what larger contexts are influencing a given situation.
Observing Other People
Awareness, in particular, can create some valuable inputs for your intuitive decision-making engine. As David Sedgers at The Art of Project Management writes, you can get a good read on other people by watching their nonverbal cues and reading between the lines conversationally. This includes:
- Reading the anxiety in a group of people huddled around a screen.
- Listening to how people in a one-on-one conversation try to talk around a looming problem.
- Watching the body language of people listening to someone else who’s speaking.
“Intuition is honed by careful observation of every situation and consciously looking for patterns,” Sedgers says.
Fuel Your Intuition — And Check Its Usefulness — By Asking Questions
To Nuszpl’s point about understanding the limits of your own knowledge, an intuitive leader must be able to recognize what they don’t know and ask questions to fill in those knowledge gaps.
Silena Fox, a senior project manager at Bell Canada, has a classic conference paper at PMI.org on how to leverage intuition in making project-level decisions, and she has a three-point rubric for assessing what questions actually inform your intuition. Fox says a good question must be
- specific and unambiguous enough “that a precise answer is possible,”
- and directly applicable to the thing you seek to understand.
Questions such as these serve to explore the ragged edge of your own knowledge, and what your comfort zone actually is. It’s only within that zone that intuitive leadership actually works, says corporate behaviorist Phil Owens. Once you get into uncharted territory, intuition loses its value.
“Leaders often get in the habit of relying on intuitive responses to problems, and leap to instinctive conclusions,” he writes. “Where situations are novel (such as where disruption has occurred, there have been changes in the circumstances that we are not aware of, or novelty exists), the leader can ‘believe’ that they have the right answer, even when they miss vital cues from the environment that they are not used to paying attention to, or the pattern that they use to match the scenario to is incorrect.
“This encourages leaders to make poor calls, bad risk decisions and to ignore important information that may have enriched or guided the decision.”
How to Fold Intuition Into Project Management Methodologies
Even in situations where you genuinely and with full self-awareness trust your gut instincts, there is a useful tension that exists between intuition and rote procedure.
At the very least, the analytics and data at your fingertips provide a valuable check against your intuition’s version of the facts. “If gut feelings are used as a substitute for common sense or sound judgment based on concrete data, you run the risk of missing signs of trouble,” writes Moira Alexander, founder and president of the Lead-Her-Ship Group.
“Resist the urge to allow a gut feeling to override important fact- and figure-based calculations, as they serve a specific purpose, and offer precise information to ensure key performance indicators (KPI) are identified, captured and documented.”
More abstractly, researchers Giulia Calabretta, Gerda Gemser and Nachoem M. Wijnberg argue that intuition and reason exist alongside one another in a paradox that, like the creative tension between Lennon and McCartney, can be harnessed for more effective decision-making.
So, rather than suppressing rationality for the sake of intuition, or vice versa, give both room to compete, and maybe a better outcome will emerge.
The key to leveraging this tension — and Calabretta, et al have an excellent three-step model for managing the rationality-intuition paradox in their paper — is to constantly improve both your analytical skills and your own intuition.
Certainly, researcher and consultant Doug Hubbard writes, certain aspects of project management such as estimating cost or the probability of an event lend themselves to dry analysis. There’s no need to override them with intuition.
But “[t]his doesn’t mean the expert is entirely replaced,” he says. “On the contrary, research also shows that experts can be trained to overcome certain biases and inconsistencies in their judgment and decision making.”
That’s where dedicated observation, thoughtful reflection and day-to-day experience come in. These inputs shine a light on your biases and inconsistencies of thought, and over time will help you become a much better intuitive thinker.
Your projects, then, will benefit because you will be able to call upon this super-agile method of decision-making when circumstances require it.