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Untaught ability



How much risk do you take?  Does it differ in your work to your personal life?  Do you use the same basis for making “risky” decisions depending on the context?

These are the questions that have been buzzing through my head all night when I should have been getting much-needed beauty sleep.  I have a lot of things on at the moment, both at home and at work.  A lot of things that have required me to take a risk, both with my future and the future of others.

Most of the time I tend to work on quite a rational basis.  You work out the likely scenarios, you work out what is tolerable and then you make a decision based on what you believe is most likely to bring the best outcome for you or your family or your organisation.  There is no such thing as a calculated risk, only a thought through decision.

But sometimes there aren’t enough facts or data to allow you to make a logical decision.  And that is where it comes down to gut instinct, or the tummy test.  I’m not one to shy away from instinct at work, I’m no scientist, but I believe our subconscious can tell us things through our body that our conscious mind cannot or will not.

I wonder though, whether in this data centric world, whether we are happy to go with our gut instinct when it is a personal choice that impacts only us, or whether we would be brave enough to make important business decisions, wholly or partly on gut feeling?  And does this differ depending on the size of the business?

Personally, I think if we want to work in truly entrepreneurial, innovative businesses, we need to throw the data out of the window sometimes and go with a hunch.  There may be as many failures and successes, but truly great creations come from feeling not just from thought.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 10/05/2010 08:16

    To what extent would you apply the “tummy test” to recruitment? Ongoing debate with many of the HR people I know. They’ll talk about competency-based questions, candidate presentations, panel interviews and I’ll hold firm that most recruiting decisions are made within the first 5 minutes….

  2. 10/05/2010 08:28

    I need to consider this as I have a foot in both camps – both intuitive /gut and measured pros and cons.
    As a recruiter I always suggest candidates entering a company for the first time will know ‘instinctively’ if they feel comfortable in that environment and can work for that manager.
    However, I will also suggest if they have a number of offers to do a rational pros n cons list.
    Am I therefore being contrary, giving two mixed messages?

    Mmm, maybe we all do both, dependent on the scenario, sometimes if its too close to call on the rational front (head) we have to go with the non tangible (heart) and that is human nature, that is how we are built. Maybe after assessing the situation/dilemma / choice we decide the risk is such that we can allow the decision to be made with the heart – ‘a what’s the worst that could happen’ choice?

    Food for thought TheHRD, do enjoy a good think first thing in the morning – thank you.

  3. BJH permalink
    10/05/2010 09:07

    I remember when I first started reading about emotional intelligence, the author highlighted that our intuition/gut instinct was built from the experience of generations that went before us. We may not all believe that, personally I think there’s something valid in that argument.

    I think I also use a mix of objective data and gut instinct when making a decision – but as I get older, my gut instinct tends to carry more weight as it has been proved right so often.

  4. 10/05/2010 09:19

    The amount of risk I take definitely varies between work and personal. I am very impulsive in my personal life and am very comfortable taking risks. On a professional level, however, while I will go with my intuition, it is far more calculated and considered.

    I think it depends where you’re at though. Ultimately I’m the only person responsible for my life and my decisions. What I do and don’t do only affects me and Mr J (and maybe a few other close family members). I don’t have kids so I don’t have them to think about. Maybe I’d make different choices if I did?

    Work though. Now that affects a lot of people. And they’re not always my decisions to make. And the ripple affect from a bad decision is far wider reaching. So, for me at least, a lot more thought and consideration goes into professional decisions compared to personal ones.

    • 10/05/2010 09:25

      Good point Mrs J. Being a child-free couple until relatively recently, you’re absolutely right that your choices change when you have kids. However, I’ve also got friends with much older kids than ours and I see them coming out the other side of the “we have dependents” cycle – taking more risks and enjoying more freedom again as their kids are now more self-sufficient.

  5. 10/05/2010 09:34

    I was looking forward to the ‘Decision Science” module on my MBA (sad, but true). Sat with pencil sharpened and all aquiver, I watched the appropriately geeky looking Prof. arrange his notes and ubiquitous powerpoint before clearing his throat for quiet. “The first thing you need to know about decision science ” he began, “is that there is no such thing”. He then spent the next three hours explaining that no amount of data is enough for certainty; that managers will almost always interpret the data to support their instinct, sometimes even overruling that data if it clashes with what they want to do. The only difference is that some people understand that and treat data with the circumspection that it deserves and others will assume that the data has made the decision for them: it hasn’t and never will.

  6. KarenF permalink
    10/05/2010 09:44

    Interesting midnight thoughts you are having there!

    I have learned the hard way to listen to my instincts, manys the time I have decided to go with reason and it turns out my gut was right all along and I kick myself. But theres the rub, sometimes it doesnt seem logical or rational and that is what we have come to rely upon and is what holds us back.

    You could say in our profession we follow procedure and regulation so that is what makes us cautious, but its humans we are dealing with and they are influenced by many unpredictable factors, which leads me to ‘people read’ and often take a ‘flyer’!

    Even though I do have dependents I seem to go with instinct more in my personal life I think this is because it always seems to turn out ok (but thats a whole different topic!)

    Good point made there James about recruitment decisions, and largely you are right, however I find with the right questions can ultimately change the initial thoughts and lead to a more considered decision being made.

  7. 10/05/2010 09:57

    I’ve found in my life that when I have most risked I have been most alive.

  8. Ministry of Truth permalink
    10/05/2010 10:16

    I was watching last night a documentary about the making of “Seinfeld” (that is the sort of intellectual heavy weight I am). Apparently, the test viewings described the initial episode as “weak” and it was nearly ditched, NBC actually offered it to Fox! One of the people high up in NBC believed in it and paid out of his own budget for an additional 4 episodes to be made, the rest as they say is history. “The Office” was also apparently almost ditched after some of the worst feedback to test viewings the BBC had ever received. Some times you have to go with your gut to get belly laughs!

  9. 10/05/2010 11:42

    Some interesting thoughts here. I have to say that my experience of ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘gut instinct’ often involves knee-jerk, instant justice reactions and over reactions which help no-one! Having said that I have seen an occasional blinding flash of inspiration!

    Not sure if the ‘tummy test’ allows for a look at all the possible effects and knock on effects, particularly in a business context (employees, their dependents, clients, suppliers etc) but then there is a multi-billion pound global business sector of consulting, analyzing and advising that quite often sends businesses in the wrong direction!

    As with all things it’s balance I think. Plus context.

    Agree with James and Wendy that personal priorities do change with children.

  10. 10/07/2010 08:59

    @James Mayes – Personally I apply it almost exclusively in recruitment. Selection methodology is still so scientifically unproven and statistically irrelevant that I prefer to rely on my instinct and experience. Probably not the right thing to say……

    @paul – Without doubt I think it is a mix of the two, but in business we are too quick to move towards the head and rule out the heart

    @BJH – Great point about age and experience….but is that gut instinct or learned behaviour?

    @Wendy Jacob – I hear what you’re saying, but what if you had an organisation that promoted risk taking and instinctive behaviour and didn’t punish bad decisions. Would you take more?

    @Kevin Ball – Great point and I think this is what lies at the heart of my argument. At the end of the day you can make any data fit any situation.

    @KarenF – Interesting. I think sometimes counter intuitive behaviour is the best way to solve a problem, even if only to open the way in which we think.

    @Henry – Good quote sir…..good quote…..

    @Ministry of Truth – Bad pun sir……bad pun…….

    @Mervyn Dinnen – But what if our brain is making the calculations on possible effects and knock on effects subconsciously and that is leading to our gut feel?

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