• Allan J. Mucerino

INTUITIVE DECISION-MAKING: GOING WITH THE GUT

Part 2 of a series on leadership and the art of decision-making.


In Part 1 of this series on decision-making, I focused on the rational model. Since many decisions in the education sphere can be programmed, the rational model has emerged as an effective and common management tool. When rational models fail, however, usually because a situation/problem is difficult to define or the conditions surrounding it, or responsible for it, are ambiguous, savvy leaders rely on heuristic approaches, including intuition. Intuitive leaders rely on their expertise, experience, and positional authority. They draw on internal and external cues, particularly when the stakes are highest, to settle on a decision. In today’s data-driven organizational culture, the intuitive style is not in style.

Leaders are tasked with making the right decision. The more dynamic, unstable, and uncertain organizations are, the more likely alternative models for decision-making emerge.

The threat of high-decision costs and increased time pressure has opened minds towards alternative models, including the fuzzy concept of intuition. Intuition has always complimented rational models for programmed decision-making. The problem with relying on intuition is explaining it and defending it.


Look no further than America’s grand old game, baseball. Intuition has been the decision-making model of choice of managers since the game was conceived. Currently on the edge of extinction, intuitive decision-makers have become an endangered species in baseball. Calculating the highest percentage of success has marginalized manager’s intuition.

It’s been about fifteen years since sabermetrics, popularized in the mainstream media by Michael Lewis’ bestseller book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, detailed how Harvard economics graduate, Paul DePodesta, revolutionized decision-making in baseball. Computer programs now produce the starting lineup and weigh in on virtually every decision in today’s game.

More recently, the Houston Astros, today’s top baseball franchise and 2017 World Champions, continue to prove that the rational model works. While intuitive decision-making is not completely out of the game, it’s fallen from grace given its over-reliance on “gut feelings,” a difficult construct to measure and an impossible process to defend. Going with the data is defensible. Going with the gut is not. When you do, you’re either a genius or an idiot. Going with the percentages, on the other hand, protects leaders from personal criticism.


Computers are not only making managerial decisions in the grand old game. Major League Baseball is also experimenting with computers to call balls and strikes, further removing the human element. Already institutionalized in many major sports, replay officials have been reversing miscalls for many years. Theoretically, where one might fail, the other corrects. At its best, the technology revolution in sports has been a complimentary relationship between man and machine. At its worse, it’s robbed the game of its soul.


If you can picture Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own, you know the archetype of the old-school manager. They had names like Sparky, Razor, Casey, Earl, Cool Papa, Yogi, Leo, Dusty, Pop, and Gus. Intuition was their go-to and analytics would have been greeted with disdain (and likely a well-aimed spate of tobacco to boot). Robo-umpires and replay officials have hijacked the theatrics Jimmy Dugan-types famously brought to the game: hat-turned-around, dirt-kicking, nose-to-nose, saliva-spewing tirades produced drama in what’s become a bygone era. My era. I miss it. But I also appreciate progress and recognize that the culture of everything changes over time…even the grand old game. Today the drama is less organic and often manufactured by market-driven production crews teasing audiences with video verdicts.


OK, back to the question of whether intuitive models of decision-making have a place in a leader’s toolbox. While bounded rational models are data-driven and defensible, any rational person knows it’s difficult to program out all affective elements to guarantee the decision is purely the result of conscious reasoning alone; what you may imagine would be the case using Artificial Intelligence.

The human element will always be factored into any decision made by people. Even in the 21st Century version of the grand old game.

Intuitive decision-making models are characterized by non-sequential information processing. Since intuition is generally considered an evasive and mostly non-conscious phenomenon, it’s difficult to measure objectively using scientific methods. What evidence there is suggests its use may be more driven by personal characteristics than other tangible elements. When it comes to hiring decisions for example, rational and intuitive models may perfectly compliment each other. But in the domain of strategic planning and management, intuition is starved out by our consumption of data.


Intuition is an experience-based phenomenon. At the organizational level of analysis, a leader may turn to it as a function of her or his leadership style. Their knowledge, accumulated through a deep understanding of organizational behavior and a variety of experiences, may reveal contextual patterns that a rational process may not capture. As an affective trait, intuition is a stable personality disposition and among the characteristics of democratic styles of leadership. It’s trust-based. But only leaders who possess confidence and strength in the face of leadership challenges will trust themselves. Particularly when the stakes are high.


Building trust starts with building confidence in those entrusted to make decisions. Intuitive leaders know who to empower, and who to trust. It's a gut feeling.


Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series on leadership and the art of decision-making.