Some years ago, while driving from Poland to Vienna, my GPS broke down. Forget about buying a printed map; they’d vanished in the two decades since I’d last looked for one. My navigational skills are questionable and I’d only been in the area once before, but I had no choice other than to point the car in what I guessed was the right direction and just drive.
Remarkably, I reached my destination without making a single wrong turn. When I puzzled over how I’d managed that, I could only come up with one conclusion: I'd allowed my instincts to run the show.
Not only do many leaders tend to distrust their instincts as a guide for major business decisions, they often misunderstand what it means to use instinct properly. It isn't just about abiding a feeling we may have, even if that's what it feels like we're doing. Instead, an instinct is an accumulation of the insights you've gathered through thousands of experiences, all compressed into a half-conscious impression that guides you toward a course of action.
Using your instincts, then, is about connecting those thousands of impressions. Of course, you can't consciously explain how all those dots were connected. They simply were.
Some of the most successful business leaders are known for trusting their instincts. Rupert Murdoch supposedly reads most of his newspapers every morning. If a headline is out of line with what he believes his readers want—whether it’s a business reader of the Wall Street Journal, a commuter thumbing through the New York Post, or a British retiree reading the Sun—Murdoch is on the phone with his editors.
The founder of Ikea was no different. You’d find Ingvar Kamprad running cash registers in his stores. Why? Because he was determined to understand not just what people buy but also why. Sitting at the checkout stand let him interact with customers, one at a time.
"There is only one boss," said Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. "The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company, from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." You’d often find Walton walking around his stores, interacting with customers.
Instincts can be honed to become sharper—and better focused around customers' needs and experiences, rather than leaders' own. Last year, NBC asked me to help turn around a range of small businesses across North America for the Today Show. I quickly realized that these businesses shared one problem: a serious disconnect with the consumer. Time after time, owners viewed their businesses from their own perspectives rather than from their customers'. Yet it's their thousands of half-conscious experiences, not yours, that you need be attuned to as a business leader: Your instinct should to be know your customer's.
One of the retailers was a hundred-year-old shop called Veach’s Toy Station. As I entered the store, its lack of customer focus struck me instantly. So I lined up the entire staff and asked them to join me on our hands and knees to crawl through the store. I wanted them to see the world from a 6-year-old’s perspective. "Can you reach that toy?" I asked. "Can you see that doll? Can you play with that car?" They answered, No, of course not. But wasn’t their primary consumer a child below the age of 10?
I’m reminded of the late Michele Ferrero, Italy’s richest man, owner of Nutella, Kinder Surprise, Ferrero Rocher, and Tic Tac. Some years ago, Ferrero was spotted on all fours, crawling through a retail store to test whether children could reach his chocolates.
This kind of exercise can be uncomfortable. You’re stripped of the trappings of leadership—of being the shrewd, strategic thinker who knows what works and what doesn't. As you join your consumers in the aisles, or even in their homes, you become an ordinary person.
But how can you know how your consumer thinks if you never stand in her shoes? How can you draw reliably on your cognitive storehouse of observations and impressions if they overlap so little with your customers'? Isn’t that the secret of Murdoch, Kamprad, Walton, and Ferrero?
In this sense, your best and biggest algorithms are no match for your instincts, as long as you hone them this way. Data doesn’t create meaning. We do. Leaders need to be far more than trend watchers and data analysts. They have to constantly strive to see the world from the point of view of those that their businesses intend to serve. If you can do that, then trusting your instincts might prove a great strategy after all.