Have you ever made a decision that you knew was right, but you were not able to articulate why? As engineers, we rely heavily on data and analysis to make important decisions. We would not try to design a plant by gut feel, or justify a capital expenditure with “I went with my gut.” Nevertheless, our intuition can give us some useful information.
Although subtle differences exist, terms like gut reaction, gut feeling, inner voice, hunch, instinct, and intuition tend to be used interchangeably. Whatever we call it, it’s the result of our subconscious working behind the scenes, gathering information and making sense of that information by comparing it to stored memories based on our past experiences, identifying patterns, and cross-indexing those patterns.
Cross-indexing, “the ability to see similar patterns in disparate fields, is what elevates a person’s intuitive skills from good to sublime,” wrote Alden Hayashi in Harvard Business Review. Hayashi told the story of Bob Lutz, an executive at Chrysler Corp. who spearheaded the development of the highly successful Dodge Viper based on his gut instincts. Lutz used an analogy of an airplane going too slow to explain his decision to go against conventional wisdom. Aerodynamic drag increases because the nose of the plane is too high, and at a certain point, even at full power, the plane cannot climb anymore; the solution is to drop the nose and trade off some altitude to gain speed. Lutz noted that in the late 1980s, Chrysler had lost so much momentum that it was in danger of stalling, and to gain altitude, the conventional wisdom called for cost cutting — not spending cash to develop a new sports car. When he made the gut call to build the Viper, he was not consciously aware of the aerodynamic analogy. But considering he is a former Marine fighter pilot, on a subconscious level his intuition might have made the connection. “The Viper gave us the forward momentum we desperately needed,” Lutz said.
Hayashi pointed out that the power of cross-indexing increases with the amount of material that can be cross-indexed. That comes with experience. Brian Bacon, chairman and founder of Oxford Leadership Academy, wrote on the website HRZone, “Your brain can be trained to work as an advanced pattern recognition device. Your subconscious mind finds links between your new situation and various patterns of your past experiences. In a team setting, this becomes even more powerful … This is how high-performing teams develop creative solutions and collaborative action, based on collective insights and wisdom.”
Another key to high-performing teams — and more successful and profit-able companies — is diversity. In “Creating a Culture of Diversity” (pp. 20–26), Zenaida Gephardt and her coauthors cite a study by McKinsey & Co. that shows that companies that are diverse with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity are 35% more likely to outperform less-diverse companies. They add: “Participation on a diverse team helps to accelerate professional development by exposing participants to the benefits of different viewpoints. … Innovation is often the result of constructive debate among people with multiple diverse perspectives. … It is not surprising that individuals with more diverse sources of information generate better ideas and make better decisions.” Perhaps their experiences in a diverse organization have enabled them to more finely tune their intuition.
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