Why going with your gut is not good enough

I’m always impressed by folks I know who possess keen instincts for making the right decisions in the right place at the right time. You know the type; the ones that forgo reading the comprehensive, detailed analysis compiled by their staff in favor of going with their gut.

The reality is that while the executive’s decision may be right more often than not, when it goes bad, it goes REALLY bad.

Making key strategic decisions based solely on how it feels at that moment in time is as dangerous – if not more so – than getting caught up in every minute detail to the point that the opportunity is missed altogether. There’s been a great deal of writings over the years about how it’s important not to micromanage projects to death, but I would submit that the same hazards exist by not staying informed and involving other people’s intuition. The answer is finding the right balance between the benefits of getting enough supporting data without causing stagnation. Here are some ways to do it.

Keep up to date on your reading
The best way to make quick decisions is to be prepared. While issues will come up seemingly from nowhere that require immediate action, you’ll be better served by staying up on all the trade journals, industry analysis and other outlets that offer objective data about your markets. I take at least 15-30 minutes each day to do this; incorporating it part of my normal routine. Make it a New Year’s resolution to chip away at the stack of periodicals at the corner of the desk.

Never eat alone
There’s a great book with the same name by Keith Ferrazzi pertaining to building and leveraging key relationships. Most readers look at this book as a blue print for new business development, but such practices can also be leveraged for other executive decision making. Peers and co-workers are a terrific resource for bouncing off ideas and decisions. The old adage of "you’re not alone" is true, and chances are the issues you’re wrestling with are familiar to others who may have dealt with similar circumstances over their careers. Along these lines, rarely a week goes by where I’m not having coffee, lunch or a cold beer with a colleague or business associate where we can bounce ideas and issues around. 

Ask for input
Dust off that suggestion box in the employee lounge and put it to good use. Some of the best ideas can come from team members who are struggling with a problem first hand. What’s more, an executive’s "gut feel" isn’t the only intuition to care about. Management by walking around and communicating with your staff is also a good way to get others to chime in; getting away from your desk and talking with employees about issues of the day can be a great intelligence gathering tactic.

At my company, Red Door Interactive, we have a "Start, Stop and Keep" initiative where I request feedback from all staff members on internal programs that the company should start, stop or keep doing.

Focus on your core values
A good litmus test for any manager when looking at options is how they align with a company’s mission and guiding principles. Such statements can help ensure you stay true to the organization’s purpose. If a decision is in conflict with your stated values, it’s probably not a good one to make.

While I’m certainly not an advocate or example of retaining every little grain of knowledge or looking up every footnote in a report, I do believe that going strictly on instinct will, in the long run, cause more harm than good. Managers must make decisions; the key is in being prepared to do so when necessary.

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  • Leanne Smith

    Given enough information, usually your gut (intuitive thinking) is verified. Read some of Daniel Goleman's work on emotional intelligence along with "Why Choose This Book" which provides some actual brain research that what we may view as gut thinking is actually wired into our brain through our past experiences. This is why I do not advice many young people to go with their gut because their experiences plus their knowledge are not deep enough. I totally agree that going just on gut alone is not a viable leadership behavior.

  • Reid Carr

    David, my contention is that, if you're operating exlusively on your own, in your words, "past experience all culminating in a feeling of either 'go' or 'don't go'" an executive's references, particularly a young executive such as myself, are limited to their own experiences.

    I believe that executives need to establish communications mechanisms -- things that are easy and scalable -- from the front line to better inform decisions which effect those same people. The base of those affected by the decision is comprised of auditory, visual and kinesthetic people who each share a different, yet valuable, perspective on the same possible decision, as well as the requirement to act on it.

    I believe that one is more likely to be successful with a poor plan and good execution than a good plan and poor execution... leveraging data from others helps gain their support and fuels the drive to execute (and adapt if a plan is identified as poor) flawlessly.

  • David Molden

    Actually Reid, your view of the 'gut-feel' decision needs a thorough understanding. This is an area I have modelled in top execs for some years and it goes like this: When decisions are made by gut feel, or intuition, what's happening is a lightening fast review of past experience all culminating in a feeling of either 'go' or 'don't go'. This review is often conducted through visualisation and may be mainly an unconscious process. It scares people who process with their auditory channel as they think it impossible to weigh up the pros and cons in such a short time - using your auditory channel (mainly internal dialogue) it does take a long time. Even effective decision-makers get it wrong sometimes as no-one can predict future events - the best you can do is evaluate what's available and take a shot. Some people though like to think you can plan for 100% success - this isn't possible. One mistake doesn't mean you need a new system of checks.

    I agree with all your sub-headings, but it is unlikely that an exec with a good rack record of intuitive decision-making will abide by it. They probably do most of it anyway as they manage day-to-day.