Why Does “The Gut” Get All the Glory?

gutDespite the logic of using data to complement or drive decision making, the business and mainstream press glorify intuition and “gut” decision making by managers of all stripes. Where does this leave “data-driven” approaches?

An article in Fast Company titled, “Going for the Gut,” details how even though we like our “heroes to crunch the numbers, we (also) like them to play their hunches.” Author Rob Walker laments that books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Jack Welch’s Straight from the Gut and others, give gut decision making first billing over a “careful, rational, empirical” approach.

Walker asks, “Are the narratives of popular culture dominated by super rational heroes triumphing over seat of the pants, gut-trusting bad guys? Actually, it’s the opposite: from Captain Kirk to Indiana Jones to Rambo to Tony Soprano…we’re drawn to the character who follows the hunch and wins.”

And business press and mainstream media largely agree. After all, wouldn’t you rather read about the business executive who had the right hunch and made millions, as opposed to the quant-jock who crunched the numbers and came up with the winning combination?

Gut decision making is “in” and for lack of a better word—cool. Some senior executives have alluded there’s a mystique to gut decision making—those who have it have it, and those who don’t will never ascend the ivory tower of business success.

Case in point, Ralph Larsen, former CEO of a large consumer product goods company, states in a Harvard Business Review article, “When to Trust Your Gut,” that “Very often people will do a brilliant job up through the middle of management levels, where it’s very heavy quantitative in terms of 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.”

I do agree with Mr. Larsen that data driven decision making works best when there is in fact “data” to analyze. Sometimes, senior level decisions can be challenging because situations might be in uncharted territory—and there’s no past data, or too small a data set for analysis or prediction. That said, I’m not convinced that good judgment and intuition is the sole purview of senior management.

There is hope, however, that a data-driven approach can work just as good as gut thinking, and in most instances—compliment it.  Running a company and making decisions based on hard facts and numbers is something that I believe will never go out of style.

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