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Does Data Kill Leadership? Can Systems Thinking Restore Intuition?


Use systems thinking for leadership intuitionWhen I first got involved with helping organizations perform better, I mostly dealt with, and therefore learned from, engineers who saw everything as logical, step-by-step programs. Even now, many clients want a "process" for finding a better way to run their companies.

There is a strong focus on the logical, rational and data-driven analysis of making business decisions. Yet, some of the engineers-as-leaders used what I call intuition to take companies in new directions.

I'm sure they aren't comfortable using the word "intuition", being process-driven engineers. But I think these particular leaders were systemic thinkers and used systems thinking tools like Concept Engineering, a "customer-centered process for clarifying the 'fuzzy front end' of the product development process", to bridge the gap between the right and left brain. Tools such as these use a process to make intuition visible (and eventually quantifiable).

Intuition is perceived by many to be irrational, illogical and based on unexplainable emotions/feelings rather than facts. Thus, it is not seen as a good basis for making decisions. The current combination of an environment of caution and seemingly infinite access to information creates a strong lean toward data-driven decisions.

In my research on the use of intuition in leadership, one particular paper influences this particular post: "Intuition: A Needed Component of Leadership for Decision-Making In Today's Technology Driven Air Force "by Douglas J. Slater, Ch, Lt Col, USAF

His definition of intuition is "the ability to subconsciously access and combine previous experiences, knowledge and life situations in a rational non-linear style to arrive at a conclusion that does not have readily apparent and communicable logical fact based data to support the conclusion."

I think this definition meshes well with systems thinking for 3 reasons:

  1. The concept of non-linearity is not only common to both but makes up a substantial part of their respective foundations.
  2. Lack of apparent data to support conclusions with intuition mirrors the inability of existing data to solve a recurring, dynamic problem. In both situations, it takes a synthesis of seemingly unrelated information to create a new way to look at the decision or problem.
  3. The subconcious combination of knowledge and experience - with a data-driven approach, we use only "known" and familiar patterns to size up the new decision. This limits the outcome to an existing, non-unique framework. In systems thinking, we make a point of moving past those pre-conceived notions and open up to new ideas that lead to unique choices. 

I know that I tend to use intuition more than hard data to determine the direction of a decision, but I have struggled with trying to convince others of my ideas.

Systems thinking tools and concepts like causal loop diagrams have helped me to represent and make visible my thinking and logic. This at least gets everyone to a point of understanding about the line of reasoning I am using, even if I can't describe how I arrived there.

At this point, facts and figures (and other opinions disguised as facts and figures) can be thrown at my model and we can uncover assumptions to test or find good reasons to kill the idea.

Those with a data-bias might choose a path that is limited by the confines (safety) of the data, or may request more data in order to make the decision (analysis paralysis). At a strategic level, such an approach lacks creativity and therefore may not create a robust outcome.

On the other hand, a decision made without some grounding in facts and data can lead to a similarly ineffective and wasteful choice.

So what's a growing leader to do?

We believe that you have several leadership responsibilities, the first and formost of which is to develop yourself. Here are 3 suggestions for bringing intuition back into your leadership style for better decisions:

  1. Per the Slater paper above, utilize assessments such as Meyers-Briggs to determine your style. "Sensing" would indicate a primary focus on data and "Intuition" is self-explanitory.
  2. Partner with those who see the world differently and listen to them. If you are highly intuitive, have the courage to speak up even when you don't have data. If you are data-driven, have the courage to ask "What am I missing?"
  3. Find development opportunities that focus on building your intuitive strength. These might include systems thinking workshops for those caught up in data or seminars that help you present intuitive concepts to others who don't see what you see.

I have benefited from several of these development experiences and I find it easier to present my ideas and to know when to push others past the data into unfamiliar territory or incorporate the data into my thinking and adjust my synthesis.

With that last thought, please share your experience of using intuition and data together to make solid decisions! Has data killed your leadership? Has intuition ruined it? What has helped?


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