By Brian Walker
CEO & Founder, Retail Doctor Group
“Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.” (Robert Heller)
Recently, I witnessed a senior retail business leader, when talking through their business strategy, its positioning and deployment, describe how this work had been conceived from the “gut” or his intuition. In other words, it was their experience, and instinct that led them to deliver such a well–crafted set of opinions, as their operating strategy over a three–year timespan.
And that got me wondering about how reliable “gut instinct” really is in decision making and, in this case, very important decisions. These decisions often require capital, deployment of resource, and more often than not, a different approach, or radical surgery.
How do boards endorse strategy formed without independent insights, research and counterbalance? I wasn’t sure, although many have and still do.
There is a minefield of strategic decisions made by many retail CEOs over the years that felt right but strategically inflammable – the department store channel that wanted to expand when the world was fast discovering internet or the retail CEOs who acquired business models leaving their balance sheets exploded and so on.
So, what naturally comes next is to ask ourselves: How, in this rapidly changing landscape that we all live in, do the lessons of strategy development, consumer behaviour, marketplace dynamics, and technology accelerants underpinning many strategic adaptations really equip us to rely on our gut to predict the future?
In his book Intuition at Work, author Gary Klein expresses the common and probably flawed wisdom when he says that intuition is “at the centre of the decision-making process” and that analysis is, at best, “a supporting tool for making intuitive decisions.” Detached from rigorous analysis, intuition is a fickle and undependable guide. It is as likely to lead to disaster as to success. And while some have argued that intuition becomes more valuable in highly complex and changeable environments, the opposite is actually true.
Furthermore, making great decisions from the gut has been emblematic of leaders in the past. There are business fables assigned to these moments, and the reality is that they are very much few and far between. In fact, exceptional instinct is a superpower that only superheroes truly possess or as Ralph Lauren, ex-CEO of Johnson and Johnson, puts it: “Very often, people will do a brilliant job up through the middle management levels, where it’s very heavily quantitative in terms of the decision-making. But then they reach senior management, where the problems get more complex and ambiguous, and we discover that their judgment or intuition is not what it should be.” What is a better way to justify a high status than to claim the superhuman power of exceptional instinct?
Complexity and ambiguity are absolutely the hallmarks of the environment we live in today. And still I am not yet satisfied that intuition or gut doesn’t play a valuable part in strategy development. So what is driving this thought?
As Jeanne Hardy says,
“The human brain is wired to see patterns in the information our senses take in. Most of this occurs in the subconscious, which forms 95% of our brain activity. When we subconsciously process patterns, our body produces neurochemicals that trigger both the brain and gut. This is how our intuition is formed and why we get the sensation that something “feels” right or wrong. We make decisions this way much quicker than with rational conscious thought, which is why intuition is often referred to as the “fast thinking” system within our brain. Without this system, we would get overwhelmed by all the choices and actions we have to make on a daily basis, from what we eat for breakfast in the morning to which route we use to get to work.
Intuition is formed from two aspects: our current senses (the information our brain is processing at the time our gut feeling kicks in), as well as the deep well of memories that our brain has collected since our birth. That’s why successful creative entrepreneurs, particularly those that have been in their industries for a long time, are often known to have “great instincts.” They simply have a much deeper well of experience to draw from.”
This ultimately sums up the power of both understanding the “Limbic” approach to determining customer and senior leader behaviours in strategy formation and the insights that years of deep industry experience tend to bring to the table.
As intuition isn’t just a random collection of feelings that happen when you’re exposed to a particular product or brand, people who explore the question “what is a gut feeling?” often find that these emotional responses are informed by previous experiences, ideas, and memories.
In some short summation, my view is that a deeply seasoned career executive, generally within the same sector, who has deeply ingrained learnings, experiences and some good old fashioned relevant thinking can, to some degree, rely on their instincts in strategic formation, supported by insights and data.
(Now consider the reasonably rapid turnover of CEOs within a 5–year window – this type of CEO certainly exists, although more the exception than the rule, signalling that the deep bank of relevant experiences may not quite be here yet).
For the balance of we mere mortals, it’s insight, data and research that are often used for decision making and effectively test the CEO “gut” in building strategy.
Trust me, I have an intuition for these matters.