I recently read a McKinsey article on “Learning from Google’s Digital Culture” in which Google VP Jon Kaplan talks about the company being data driven and that “At Google, you really don’t walk into a meeting talking about your gut feel on something”.
While not denying the power of basing decisions on data, I think there are five reasons why you might want to base your decisions on gut feeling:
- Firstly, there are the quick decisions that we take (“Whom should I talk to first in a room full of strangers?”, “Which of today’s tasks is most important?”, “What should I wear?”). We do not have time to check all the data, we need to get on and do something. But we normally rely on rules of thumb, which leads to the second reason:
- Often we have built up experience and can instinctively make good decisions. They may be difficult to explain but our gut feeling can be a reliable distillation of what we have learnt subconsciously, for example in terms of dealing with people or prioritising certain tasks
- Sometimes there is not enough data available in a quantitative form. This may be true even for big decisions, like choosing a job – the salary and the career opportunities might be good, but even after talking to a number of people, we will not know for sure how we will enjoy the work atmosphere until we try it out.
- When we are passionate about something, or come up with something innovative, it may be a case of following our instinct and convincing others to follow us or try out something new. Leaders and innovators do not always have data because they are able to change behaviours so that previous data does not apply.
- Lastly, testing may be the best way to collect the data – a case of going with gut feeling and checking the results.
The last point is vital. It may be worth following gut feeling because of our passion, our experience, our lack of time or lack of data. But it is always important to test that it is working: are people signing up for our innovative products? Is our (subconscious) experience relevant in this case? Are the results of our test providing the data to back up our decision?
Remember also that gut feeling only works if you are in charge of the decision. In the words of Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
Do you have good or bad experience of using gut feeling? Please share your thoughts or opinions in the comments