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The Art of Balancing Analysis and Intuition

Imagine being a CEO and presenting your Board with a proposal for a major acquisition that could double the size of your company – or destroy it if things go pear-shaped. The Board would expect you to present a detailed valuation, risk analysis, and a clear understanding of synergies before they gave you the green light to proceed. But the dirty little secret is that, despite the perceived comfort of all of this analytical work, changing one or two assumptions buried deep in the spreadsheets could completely change the answer.

In a good decision making process we try to address the vagaries of changing assumptions by running sensitivity analyses; however, we still inevitably end up at the frontier of analysis, where crunching more numbers does not help in making the fundamental decision. It is at this frontier where we must be ready to apply judgment – intuition – in order to reach a final decision. Understanding this frontier, and then changing approaches allows us to find a balance between analysis and intuition.

Being self-aware helps a lot in finding this balance, but it is probably more important to ensure that you have a diversity of styles around the room. Some of the popular behavioural assessment tools such as Birkman or Myers Briggs can help with this insight. The idea is to draw on each other’s strengths and to embrace the lively conflict that ensues.

Thinking back to my experience as a CEO, I was fortunate in that my intuitive style was balanced by members of my executive team who were much more deliberate than me in working through analytical solutions, and who kept me from jumping to conclusions that were sometimes ill advised. For a CEO who is wired in the opposite way to me, the challenge is to ensure that analysis is not being used as a security blanket to mask the profound uncertainties that exist in any significant project, and that can only be addressed by applying intuitive judgment at the right time.

The debate between intuition and analysis becomes even more complex in this era of big data and the dawn of artificial intelligence (AI). Richard Fairbank, the Chairman and CEO of Capital One, was interviewed by Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership. Fairbank spoke about the continual push to increase the computing power of his bank, and the equally important realization of the limitations of this power that results in the need to shift gears and apply intuition at the frontier of analysis. Companies like Google are taking an even more aggressive approach, insisting that discussions and decisions be exclusively based on facts and analysis. Google’s approach may be highlighting the blurring of the line between intuition and analysis. As AI continues to expand, machines are developing the ability to apply intuition and judgment as well as to analyze problems.

We’re not there yet, but this could provide another powerful tool for CEOs looking to balance their decision-making. In the interim, until the machines take over, watch your self-awareness and ensure that you have a diversity of styles around the table!