Making the Right Choices: Five Observations About Intuitive vs. Analytical Decision-Making

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” Peter F. Drucker, Austrian-American Father of Productivity.

Making solid decisions is key to effective and productive work at all levels—individual, team, division, or corporate. Most of us make a remarkable number of decisions daily; some researchers claim we make thousands, if we include every little choice, like what to eat and which task to do next. In the case of routines, most represent decisions made in advance or enforced by deliberately limited choice, so we spend time more efficiently.

Most decisions are personal and have limited impact on others. But the decisions you make during work hours can impact thousands or even more, depending on your position—not just in your business, but also among your customers. For example, whoever decided that annoying paperclip that haunted MS Office until 2001 was a good idea affected the lives of millions. (If my younger readers have no idea what I’m talking about… good.)

There’s always been some conflict about whether instinctual, intuitive snap decisions or more analytical, deep-thought decision-making works best. Here are some thoughts about both types, and how each can work for you, separately and together.

  1. We’re naturally intuitive. Most decisions are snap decisions; we’re biologically programmed to use intuition first, for good reason. When you see a snake strike at you from the corner of your eye, you can’t debate what to do; you jump away. When you decide to replace that glitchy old printer/copier, frustration may drive you, but in the back of your mind you also know it’s ten years old, the manufacturer no longer supports it, and it lacks a smartphone interface. Computers can evaluate every possible option and its most likely result; we can’t. Sometimes you just pick whatever seems best, based on pattern recognition, subconscious needs, and knowledge borne from experience. Just because a decision is sudden or instinctive doesn’t mean it’s bad or Few instincts are hardwired; most develop based on experience.
  2. Modern business often praises the intuitive over the analytical. Point 1 may be one reason why my research for this blog was biased toward intuitive decision-making. Businesspeople and their observers have come to respect intuition as a highly valuable business tool. Psychologist Gerd Gigerzer calls it “fast and frugal thinking.” Modern processes like lean manufacturing and just-in-time services often require quick thinking and snap decisions. So do start-ups.
  3. Collective corporate decision-making tends to be via committee and focus groups, which some consider a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. This analytical approach does, however, accomplish several things. It allows decision-makers to hear all aspects of an argument, identifies points that may not have occurred to the group, and refines decisions once made. That’s why many organizations and individuals swear on the analytic process of decision-making. Doing your due diligence and homework is required for the more important decisions. 
  4. They needn’t be mutually exclusive. Often, what we think of as intuition or instinct is like the muscle memory triggered by an activity requiring repetitive, fast response. In time, your muscles automatically react to what you see coming, whether you’re fencing, playing baseball, operating a machine, or typing. In the case of decision-making, you’ve picked up and internalized cues and responses from years of work in your field. So, even if a decision somehow seems instinctual, if it isn’t impacted by bias, it’s likely because you’re thinking analytically at a subconscious level, based on your knowledge and experience.
  5. Even when working a plan, intuition is valuable. There was a time when businesses followed five-year and three-year plans. The business world is no longer stable enough for that. With the rise of complex telephony and the World Wide Web, even one-year plans aren’t tenable. We all know that, as in warfare, no plan survives contact with reality. Working with a plan is fine if you remain flexible, willing to divert from the plan whenever productive and profitable. That’s where intuitive decision-making comes in handy.

Decisions Come, Decisions Go

The continuing debate about instinctive vs. analytical decision-making is helpful, because both types of decision-making have their good points. Teams or institutions can benefit from taking the time to work out the decision-making process that works best for them. We value leaders who can merge both types, so that experience and new knowledge from analysis can yield the biggest, best ideas. So do your homework and take new trends and business realities into account; however, don’t undervalue intuition while making decisions.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.