L. Gregory Jones: Learning intuition

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An uncertain and complex world requires leaders to cultivate intuition that enables “fast” thinking. Routines, such as setting aside time for intentional learning and engaging people and ideas in other fields, can help, writes the theologian and executive vice president and provost of Baylor University.

Long-term effective leadership requires an ability to cultivate intuition for shaping vision and strategy. Such intuition is a “seventh sense” that enables leaders to see the larger ecosystems in which our organizations exist, to understand the “wicked” problems our institutions face and to develop generative solutions to help us flourish for the long term.

The development of such intuition has always been valuable. Yet it is even more crucial amid the challenges we face in an increasingly “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. As Duke Corporate Education discovered in its 2013 interviews with CEOs around the world, we live in a time in which “challenges are less predictable and knowledge is less reliable.”

How can we cultivate the intuition to lead effectively in such circumstances, able to both manage core operations and steer our organizations through challenges and toward opportunities shaped by a clear and compelling vision?

This question points to two conundrums that Daniel Kahneman’s research in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” helps illumine. First, Kahneman delineates humans’ two distinct modes of thinking: System 1, or “fast” thinking, and System 2, “slow” thinking. In fast thinking, we rely on the “intuitive” thought that shapes many of our judgments, either because of practiced expertise or because of heuristics we use to see and understand the world. Slow thinking involves “more deliberate and effortful” forms of analysis.

Leaders, especially in larger organizations, face daily challenges that require slow thinking. Such thinking is mentally, physically and emotionally taxing and often puts us in the mindset of managing operations and responding to crises. To be sure, effective management includes slow, deliberative thinking. But if that is our only or even primary mode, we (and our organizations) are likely to find ourselves driving “bumper cars,” caroming from one crisis to another, rather than leading toward an adaptive and flourishing future.

The second conundrum Kahneman highlights is our remarkable susceptibility to “systematic errors,” or “biases,” that arise from our human finitude. This is particularly true when we are fatigued as a result of the demands of System 2, “slow” thinking.

When faced with a difficult question or a wicked problem, we often substitute an easier question or simplify the problem -- and we don’t even notice that we have done so. Ken Evers-Hood has insightfully used Kahneman’s research to show the effects of systematic errors and biases on day-to-day leadership.

These two conundrums seem to leave leaders in a double bind, making it difficult if not impossible to lead effectively in a VUCA world. We devote more and more time to dealing with the wrong things, so that we’re exhausted and prone to errors in our thinking, rendering bad decisions -- which we often don’t understand how or why we made. Those bad decisions intensify the wickedness of our problems and create new crises that occupy our time and energy. And so the vicious cycle continues, and our organizations weaken and decay as we look for a “miracle-working” leader to lift us out of the quagmire.

Fortunately, though, Kahneman’s research points to a more hopeful scenario for addressing questions of leadership and vision that doesn’t depend on miracle workers: we can develop intentional strategies for learning intuition. To be sure, some people are gifted with capacities for intuition and pattern recognition. Yet too often, we oversimplify our thinking about intuition, assuming that either people have it or they don’t. We further mystify intuition by either overemphasizing trust in “gut” reactions or dismissing it altogether in favor of an excessive reliance on analysis and statistics.

We fail to recognize the importance of practices that enable us to “tutor” our intuition, developing a kind of “expertise” in pattern recognition. Such cultivated intuition explains the ability of chess masters to glance at a chessboard and quickly diagnose the patterns of a whole game. As Kahneman writes, “the accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics.”

How, then, do we develop practices to learn intuition? Peter Gerend, the global head for North America at Duke Corporate Education, emphasizes the importance of routines that shape new habits, beliefs and actions. Routines are those intentional practices that we learn to take for granted. In a hospital setting, residents learn intuition through the routines of daily rounds and the expectation that they will be asked diagnostic questions by attending physicians. Across time, the residents begin to shift their exhausting “slow” thinking about each case into the pattern recognition that becomes a part of their tutored, and practiced, intuitive judgment.

How, then, can leaders learn the intuition that cultivates pattern recognitions like a chess master or a wise physician? Over the longer term, we need new routines in our educational systems that will help all of us focus on the VUCA world in which we live as well as the wicked problems that we face.

Here are three basic routines that can help you learn intuition so that it becomes integral to your leadership.

First, set aside -- and protect -- time for intentional learning. When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey put “green spaces” in his calendar for his “personal campaign of learning,” and he had a staff member charged with making sure he maintained this focus.

Second, regularly engage people and ideas outside your normal expertise. Schedule at least one conversation a week exploring the life and work of an admired person who is in a very different field or sees patterns in a very different light. Find videos, articles, books and websites that help you learn to discover new forms of pattern recognition -- for example, the YouTube video “How Wolves Change Rivers” or Matthew Desmond’s incisive examination of poverty through the lens of rental housing in his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

Third, seek out experiences where you learn the importance of tutored intuition. One example would be to observe a pit crew, where success depends on a team of people knowing exactly what to do and how to see within a period of a few seconds. Or visit a spring training camp, where baseball players return to the basic drills of Little League to ensure that they will “intuit” what to do as soon as a ball is hit to the right side of the infield.

Effective 21st-century leadership will require vision and the seventh sense of intuition. Not just any intuition, though. It will be the intuition learned and embodied through intentional routines of prolonged practice and a growing ability to recognize patterns we typically otherwise miss.