Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Intuition wins again

"Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again."
--W. Blake

Everyone's (or at least my) favorite columns in the Saturday NYT’s business pages—What’s online? What’s offline—explored (or summarized other explorations) of the perennial question in business culture. What makes a good manager? Method or Instinct? A well-honed system or a well-developed gut? Judging by these two summaries, the gut is clearly winning but maybe because we’re tired of the alternatives.

The What’s Online column cited an article in The Economist which in turn cites several other sources, including HBS professor Rakesh Khurana, critiquing the degradation of business schools from a “serious intellectual endeavour to a slapdash set of potted theories.” There are also counter-arguments, including a study out of Stanford and LSE which claims that companies adopting business school methods outperform the competition, but even this evidence seems further compromised by the celebration of intuition on the parallel column, celebrating the power of intuition.

The core evidence in What’s Offline is from the MIT Sloan Management Review (though Woman’s day and Fast Company are also cited) which explains how you can improve your intuition. While the article seems designed to articulate a more complicated notion of intuition--

“Intuitions is a highly developed form of reasoning that is based on years of experience and learning and on facts, patterns, concepts, procedures…stored in ones head.”

--the implications don’t exactly take us somewhere new: Managers should learn to seek out new experiences (to internalize a broader array of patterns), harness their emotional intelligence, and reflect on their intuitions before acting too rashly.

To me that’s starting to sound a lot like what we used to call "using your judgment" or even “paying attention,” but to be fair, I should check out the MIT article first.

What’s most interesting to me is the rising popularity of of “intuition” as a quality of value in managers in general and leaders in particular, whether it’s leaderships bio’s like Welch’s Straight from the Gut to Gladwell’s Blink to celebrations of any kind of intelligence besides the old-fashioned kind: Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Multiple Intelligence. Perhaps business schools are already teaching courses entitled “Not just for women anymore: the uncanny instincts of successful leaders.”

When did intuition suddenly become so valuable a core competency? It's easy to understand why we all want it: it's faster and cheaper than research and analysis and a lot more exciting, almost mystical in it's power. But why do we--in a data-rich field like business--suddenly value it so highly? Is it because we now have too much information? And it's too easy to get stuck in an analysis (paralysis) mode and be unable to act? Or is the ascendancy of intuition a biz culture corrective to a long period of overly restrictive, pseudo-scientific systems which dominated management training for decades: creating Whyte’s Organization Man an valuing systems and bureaucracy at the cost of creativity and innovation. I’m sure the story is more complicated than that, but it’s worth exploring further.

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