The Value of Professional Intuition in Project Management

The Value of Professional Intuition in Project Management

Should we trust our intuition? Find out in this guest post by Shim Marom

Common wisdom will tell you that Intuition is an internal perception of reality that is not directly associated with any reasoning process. If you are a project manager early in your career you will most likely seek guidance and mentoring from more experienced project managers. And as you observe their conduct there is a good chance that along the way, when inquiring about this decision or another, you will get a response suggesting that their decision is based on gut-feel, i.e. their intuition.

There is a powerful body of evidence suggesting that some people are ‘gifted’ with consistently accurate intuition that allows them to make successful decisions and predictions about the possible outcome, the result of their action. We all know some “how-to” books, written by professionals, primarily in areas of finance and investments, advising on the steps they have taken in genuinely uncertain times, resulting in out of the ordinary success.

By its very nature, invoking intuition is a product of dealing with situations of uncertainty, or more specifically in the way we react to a possible risk (and opportunity). It is our immediate response to a question that results in an action (or deliberately refraining from one).

In a project environment, intuition can and does play a role in planning activities. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the ones we mostly rely on to provide planning estimates. We rely on SMEs in varying circumstances; we need their advice to forecast project activities for which they have direct past experience; we also ask for their advice to forecast project activities for which they do not have direct experience but are believed to be close enough to a point where their gut-feel and intuition could provide a good-enough estimate.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, actually, that depends.

Daniel Kahneman discusses the topic of intuition in his recent book titled “Thinking, Fast and Slow“. He brings examples for both supporting and rejecting the validity and accuracy of intuition, as a decision making tool. He concludes that intuition is only valid when it is associated with a skill. And to acquire that skill two conditions must exist:

  1. An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable, and
  2. An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

When a situation is subject to a statistical regularity then the intuition can be said to be based on a skill. So, for instance, if a developer is asked for the estimated effort for completing a piece of work, the estimate provided should be examined against the above criteria:

  1. Is the planned development sufficiently similar to work done in the past and, if so,
  2. How often was this work carried out?

If either one of these parameters is unsatisfactorily answered the chances of the intuitive estimate hitting the mark are low, to say the least.

If you are a project manager early in your career trusting your gut-feel could be successful and propel your professional aspirations into new heights, but only if you are lucky. For most people, trusting their intuition could be a risky proposition, unless that intuition is backed by the conditions outlined above. Make sure you back your professional decisions and directions with the skill and experience necessary for increased chances of success and use your intuition as a backup mechanism only – not the prime tool for making managerial decisions.

Shim Marom (@shim_marom) is a project manager who lives, writes, speaks and works in Melbourne, Australia. Shim is the owner of quantmleap.com, a blog dedicated to project management while incorporating the latest in science and psychology to better understand and explain people and organizational behavior and attitudes.

Original link: The Value of Professional Intuition in Project Management

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Andrew Krzmarzick

A relatively recent book on intuition is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” – these quotes might be obvious, but they ultimately serve as his thesis:

“Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.”

“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis”

One part data, one part gut…

Josh Nankivel

Thanks Andrew. I like Shim’s point that the key factor here is experience and training. The firefighter or pilot with years of experience and training may well gain benefit from ‘instinct’ – but a newbie had better not rely on that. Perhaps this is correlated with Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept in Outliers — you need to be that ‘expert’ in order for your ‘instinct’ to be developed enough to serve you.

Stacy L. Carpenter

That luck is played out frequently (and dramatically) in the cinema/TV, but usually catches up in the form of a lawsuit in the real world for young PMs. With more than a decade in site design and permitting, I can fully agree your example is spot on. Experience changes client comments from,” What were you thinking?!” to “How did you know?!”

Josh Nankivel

Great point Stacy, “shooting from the hip” or “going with your gut” is played up in our culture through media and politicians as an admirable decision-making process. I think we all agree though, even though subjective judgement gets better with experience, in most cases relying solely on subjective judgement is usually a bad idea unless you absolutely must.

With lean practices for my teams using kanban and my business, we run experiments regarding process improvements, features, etc. The expert judgement helps us create better experiments, but the winner is always objectively verified through testing via controlled experimentation. We ‘experts’ learn new stuff all the time this way.

Jaime Gracia

“Intuition” results from experience and knowledge, thus the term Subject Matter Expert or SME. I remember a federal program manager telling me about an engineer he managed years ago, specifically a riveter on the B-52 program. The riveter told him that there was a problem with the sheet metal that made up the “skin” of the aircraft, as the rivets were going into the metal too easily. The PM trusted the riveter and his “intuition”, so he had the metal analyzed, and it was indeed not up to spec. This mistake could have been catastrophic.

Intuition is based on facts, and the ability to determine risks. Nice term in politics, but politics is not reality.

Shim Marom

Interesting points mentioned in the discussion below, to which I would like to add the following comments:

1. Andrew mentioned the quotes from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. The first one reminds me very much of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between what he terms System 1 and System 2, where System 1 is the one driving us to make fast intuitive decisions and System 2 is the one we use when we actually think things through.

2. Jaime, important thing to note from Daniel Kahneman’s definitions is how and when does one become a Subject Matter Expert. According to the post one needs to operate not only in an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable but also needs to have the opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.

3. Stacey, I believe we see luck playing a role all around us in the real world. It is mostly seen in projects where the project manager is advocating taking high levels of risk. Lucky PMs are able to get through their ordeal successfully while the unsuccessful ones get exposed when the risk materializes. And, as you correctly suggest, there is a fine line between hearing the “what were you thinking” to “how did you know?”.

4. Josh, excellent point correlating this with Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept in Outliers.

Cheers, Shim.

Michael B Fraser

If one is working in an environment of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (oh, you mean our normal situations??), then other risk mitigation strategies can inform the decision process. For example, setting up a pilot or test solution of the areas of highest technological risk such as an interface, can go a long way to eliminating the guess work and associated need for intuition.

Laith Mahmood Muhammad

Is a true intuition depends on the extent of knowledge and experience in any of the acts, but there is an underbelly of each work, so can not discover through the experience, so you should have this intuition instinctively even possible to control the exploration of the subtleties and treatment of mis and control and then develop the project to the greater benefit.

Shim Marom

Laith, the perception that intuition is another dimension sitting on top of our experience and that can enhance that experience in times of uncertainty is somewhat of a myth. What is occuring, according to Kahenman is that our past experience, based on repeating regularities create an internal understanding of the situation, eliciting an immediate and instinctive response, and it is that response we call ‘intuition’.

Laith Mahmood Muhammad

Thank you Shim,

Intuition can encompass the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision making. For example, the recognition primed decision (RPD) model explains how people can make relatively fast decisions without having to compare options. Gary Klein found that under time pressure, high stakes, and changing parameters, experts used their base of experience to identify similar situations and intuitively choose feasible solutions. Thus, the RPD model is a blend of intuition and analysis. The intuition is the pattern-matching process that quickly suggests feasible courses of action. The analysis is the mental simulation, a conscious and deliberate review of the courses of action. (Klein, Gary. Intuition At Work. Random House, NY, NY. January, 2003).
The reliability of one’s intuition depends greatly on past knowledge and occurrences in a specific area. For example, someone who has had more experiences with children will tend to have a better instinct or intuition about what they should do in certain situations with them. This is not to say that one with a great amount of experience is always going to have an accurate intuition (because some can be biased); however, the chances of it being more reliable are definitely amplified.

Josh Nankivel

Thanks Laith, you should cite your sources though. In my view, what we think of as ‘intuition’ is simply an ability to assess what’s going on quickly because of of the experience and aptitude one has. I think Gladwell talked about 10,000 hours but acknowledged some people may be able to achieve a level of expertise in 3,000 or 5,000 hours for example. There are differences of course in our capabilities and aptitudes based on genetics and our environment.

But even the most gifted genius in a particular area must have experience. Despite the common myths to the contrary, I’ve never seen good evidence for a prodigy who mastered anything without a good deal of practice and experience. Experience may be applicable in related areas and provide a head start, but I think we all agree that intuition requires experience and a reasonably predictable environment to be worth much of anything.