When I was climbing mountains regularly, I thought I had pretty good intuition. Even if I didn’t know quite why I was making a decision, I generally made pretty good decisions. I usually made conservative as opposed to risky decisions. Intuitively, I could reasonably judge whether a decision was too conservative, too risky, or just right.
When I was an executive, on the other hand, my intuition for business decisions was not especially good. I didn’t have a “feel” for the situation. In the mountains, I could “fly by the seat of my pants.” In the executive suite I needed reams and reams of analysis. I couldn’t even tell whether a decision was conservative or risky – it depended on how you defined the terms. As a businessman, I often longed for the certainty and confidence I felt in the mountains.
What’s the difference between the two environments? The mountains were kind; the executive suite was wicked.
The concepts of “kind” and “wicked” come from Robin Hogarth’s book, Educating Intuition. Hogarth’s central idea is that we can teach ourselves to become more intuitive and more insightful. We have some control over the process, but the environment – whether kind or wicked — also plays a critical role.
Where does intuition come from? I wasn’t born with the ability to make good decisions in the mountains. I must have learned it from my experiences and from my teachers. I never set a goal to become more intuitive. My goal was simply to enjoy myself safely in wilderness environments. Creating an intuitive sense of the wilderness was merely a byproduct.
But why would I be better at wilderness intuition than at business intuition? According to Hogarth, it has to do with the nature, quality, and speed of the feedback.
In the mountains, I often got immediate feedback on my decisions. I could tell within a few minutes whether I had made a good decision or not. At most, I had to wait for a day or two. The feedback was also unambiguous. I knew whether I had gotten it right or not.
In a certain way, however, mountain decisions were difficult to evaluate. The act of making a decision meant that I couldn’t make comparisons. Let’s say I chose Trail A as opposed to Trail B. Let’s also assume that Trail A led directly to the summit with minimal obstacles. I might conclude that I had made a good decision. But did I? Trail B might have been even better.
So, in Hogarth’s terminology, mountain decision-making was kind in that it was clear, quick, and unambiguous. It was less kind in that making one decision eliminated the possibility of making useful comparisons. Compare this, for instance, to predicting that it will rain tomorrow. Making the prediction doesn’t, in any way, reduce the quality of the feedback.
Now compare the mountain environment to the business environment. The business world is truly wicked. I might not get feedback for months or years. In the meantime, I may have made many other decisions that might influence the outcome.
The feedback is ambiguous as well. Let’s say that we achieve good results. Was that because of the decision I made or because of some extraneous, or even random factors? And, like Trail A versus Trail B, choosing one course of action eliminates the possibility of making meaningful comparison.
It’s no wonder that I had better intuition in the mountains than in the executive suite. With the exception of the Trail A/Trail B issue, the mountains are a kind environment. The business world, on the other hand, offers thoroughly wicked feedback.
Could I ever develop solid intuition in the wicked world of business? Maybe. I’ll write more on how to train your intuition in the near future.