Three things you can do to hone your intuition

Image for post
Image for post
Credit: Philipp Marquetand

Note: Based on feedback from readers, this is part two of a mini-series on intuition. Though these posts will generally stand alone, you may want to check out the first post in the series for some context.

​I wrote last week about Gary Klein’s research on expertise and how without repeatedly seeing the outcome of our decisions, expertise doesn’t develop; what seems like intuition can actually be overconfidence.

​Lack of feedback about our decisions typifies what psychologists call “wicked environments.” As I wrote Meltdown and dug into this research, it became clear that complexity and wickedness have a lot in common.

​In complex environments, it’s hard to find simple cause and effect relationships. Non-linear effects can dominate how the system behaves (think of a ball at the top of a hill — a small difference in initial position will have a big effect on where the ball ends up). And complex systems often behave well until a fluke combination of inputs causes them to break down.

​And complexity is on the rise.

​So, as one reader asked, what can we do? Are there ways that we can carve out “kind environments,” ones that hone intuition, amidst our complex world?


​It’s a big part of what I do when I’m consulting with a business or coaching a leader — ask questions to clarify the things that actually matter and the leading indicators that can tell us that we’re on the right track.

​Here are three approaches that I find useful.

1. Iterate

For Meltdown, my co-author András and I found some interesting research on how the best teams manage crises. A study of trauma response teams stands out. Researchers put actual teams of experts (nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists) in a simulation involving a kid with distressed breathing. There was a catch, though — a piece of crucial equipment, the bag mask, was broken.

​Many teams missed this because they became hyper-focused on the tasks they were performing. They failed to notice when things weren’t working.

​The best teams, on the other hand, cycled between a hypothesis, a task, and monitoring to see what the results were. It was a dynamic environment, so the cycle was never perfect, but the ability to rapidly iterate characterized the best teams.

​We can all do this outside of an emergency room. Running a weekly meeting with your team? Starting a new business? Working on a project? Even if it’s only you, periodically ask what’s working, what’s not, and what you want to try differently.

2. Measure

Whether we are trying to get in the best shape of our lives or running a business, we need both goals and metrics associated with our goals.

​There are lots of different ways to do this. I’m a fan of the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) approach. The OKR process helps set ambitious goals with measurable outcomes. If done right, it also injects transparency into a company and helps harmonize expectations and work across teams.

​For smaller businesses, paying attention to your finances is important. That may sound obvious, but many small and medium-sized businesses started because their owners loved the product or service they were providing, not because they loved accounting.

​But the numbers give you valuable feedback; they let you know how much profit you’re making, whether your business is getting stronger over time, and what your cash flow situation looks like. You can then use these metrics to tune your operations.

3. Break down the problem

When facing a question in a wicked environment, try and break it down into a bunch of smaller questions. I’ll write more about this later (there’s so many good approaches here), but today I’ll touch on an approach that Noah Kagan outlined years ago in the context of starting a new business: look for early validation.

​Before you build your platform and launch your product, run some tests. Let’s say that you want to manufacture shoes for dogs (IDK, I just needed an example…).

​See how specific you can get (maybe, running shoes for Golden-doodles).

​Estimate the market size.

​Then buy some ads that point to a landing page where people can sign up to be notified when the shoes are ready.

​If you get 0 signups… the shoe doesn’t fit!

​If you get 1,500, you’re off and running (pun, in all honesty, not intended)!

​Voila! You’ve gone from a question posed into the vacuum of a wicked environment (“Will people buy shoes for dogs?”) to some very specific feedback.

​What are some ways that you hone your intuition by gathering data from your environment?

Subscribe here to get these articles in your inbox.

Written by

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store