How Should we use Intuition in Decision Making?

Donald Miller

I make a lot of decisions using intuition, which researchers are beginning to understand as more reliable, and less mystical than previously thought. Intuition is really about pattern recognition, about subconsciously picking up on conflicting patterns in a situation. One of the more discussed examples of intuitive decision making has to do with a fire chief who, shortly after entering a burning house, commanded all his men leave the house immediately without really understanding why. He said the decision came from his gut, that “something wasn’t right” and he wanted his men out of the house.

That decision saved the lives of his men, as seconds after exiting the house the floor collapsed. If they’d have stayed in the house, everybody would have been killed.


*Photo Credit: Ada Be, Creative Commons

When interviewed about his decision, the fire chief couldn’t explain his decision logically. Some of the men under his command attributed the command to a higher force, a sort of guardian angel. But guardian angel or not, by design our brains work to protect us from making mistakes, and often we have no explanation as to why.

On further investigation, several things were happening in that fire that worked to inform the fire chief’s subconscious. The first was that the firemen already on the seen had been pouring water into the kitchen, where the fire was supposedly focussed. With a normal fire, this would have solved the problem and put out the fire. But in this case, no amount of water helped. The second oddity that fed the fire chief’s subconscious is that the fire was unusually quiet. Fires normally rage and they are loud. But when entering the house, the fire wasn’t making a sound that aligned with what the fire chief was seeing.

Without knowing it, the chief subconsciously understood something really basic, and that’s that he didn’t understand what was happening. And because he didn’t understand, he knew his men could be in danger. By commanding the evacuation, he was pulling his men from a situation in which he did not know how to guide them, protect them, or solve the problem of the fire.

What was really happening in the house was that the fire was not in the kitchen, it was just burning up through the kitchen. The fire was actually raging in the basement, burning the underside of the wood floors. This would not be understood until later.

• • •

All this to say, as leaders, intuition matters. But we should also understand, perhaps in hindsight, why we are feeling cautious about a situation. Here are some tips on better using intuition:

1. When something seems wrong, back off and use caution.

2. Look for conflicts in patterns. If you’re wanting to hire somebody but they’ve been through three jobs in the last two years, there is a pattern conflict. A person who is dependable and productive should be able to keep a job longer than a few months. Inquire as to why their pattern is in conflict with their ambition to hold a job.

3. If you suspect something is amiss in a situation, don’t interrogate whoever you suspect too soon. Wait and watch and try to understand why your intuition is sending alarm signals. Once you identify some problems in patterns, sit down with the person you’re dealing with and ask them to explain the pattern conflicts.

How about you? How do you use intuition in your decision making process?

(this is a repost from the archives)

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.