Learning to Train Your “Gut Feeling” With Data

Beethoven is one of the most well-known musicians in history. His name has become synonymous with classical music, and we have all heard one of his songs though perhaps we didn’t know it.  What may surprise you is that Beethoven started going deaf when he was 30 years old. By the time he was 45, he was nearly deaf, and yet, he wrote some of his most famous pieces after losing his hearing, including the Ninth symphony. Beethoven used to put a pencil in his mouth to feel the resonance of the piano to compose songs.

It was clear that years of training had ingrained Beethoven’s ability to make music. It was such a deeply acquired skill that he didn’t even need to actually listen to the melody to know if what he was creating was great. 

His intuition had been finely tuned for years, and he was now able to reap those rewards to avoid and let hearing loss end his career. It’s important to note that Beethoven was able to keep creating music but wasn’t able to play at concerts, a significant portion of his income. Nonetheless, the role of intuition is fascinating to watch in his real life.

Intuition or gut feeling annoys scientists because it isn’t easy to measure. It may even be seen as “woo-woo” and something that has no concrete meaning. We can understand hard skills such as math and science, and we have even converted softer skills like music and sports into concrete blocks that could be analyzed. Intuition might be under attack, but I don’t think we should dismiss it altogether. 

My background in data leads people to assume that I do not believe in gut feeling and that everything has to be backed up by numbers. I don’t know how anyone could spend any amount of time working with data and come to that conclusion. There’s only so much we could learn from analytics, and there will always be instances where we have to rely on our intuition. I take this one step further. I think data is a fantastic tool for training our intuition. 

In your toughest situations, all you will have is your gut feeling. Basketball players have to determine how to take the last shot of the game. Executives have to react on the spot to questions from investors and other shareholders. Children will ask for your opinion and advice at any time. You can’t tell people to hold off for one minute while running a data analysis to determine the next step. 

Let me share 3 strategies for how you could use data to start training your gut feeling.

Strategy #1: Validation of Assumptions

The first strategy is to validate assumptions. For example, let’s imagine that you’re about to start the process of launching a new product. You should make a list of all the assumptions that you currently have about this launch. You may think that this product will be a hit among the 18 – 35 demographic and do well among California customers. 

You may also assume that it will take 6 months to fully launch it, and your biggest obstacles will be around branding. We all have these kinds of assumptions, but the key is to write them down so we can revisit them in the future. It isn’t easy to separate our original assumptions from the real answers because we constantly reevaluate our perception of the world. By the time the actual product launches, you may forget all about your initial ideas.

Keep a record of these assumptions as you proceed through the product launch. As new data comes in, you want to compare notes. If it turns out that the product did quite well among the 35 – 50 age group, you want to understand what was the missing piece in your thinking. 

The real-world data may show your expected age group was willing to spend money in certain areas, but they didn’t consider your product essential while the older group did. Don’t feel bad if an assumption was proven wrong. Get excited because you can figure out was the kink in your thought process.

Strategy #2: Lean on Others

Another strategy to train your gut involves leaning on other people, specifically people with different personalities or inclinations. If you’re biased towards data and evidence, then find someone who has a bias towards their intuition.

I constantly come across executives who have a clear bias but haven’t done anything to explore other ways of making decisions or building their assumptions. We usually hear about exploring other points of view, but I think it’s just as important to explore other decision-making styles.

When leaning on others, focus on a similar question or, ideally, the same question. You can see how other people approach problems and how they come up with their own assumptions. Depending on your style, you will have to do some prodding into how someone arrived at a specific conclusion. Remember that the thinking process happens quite quickly, but there are a series of data points considered to arrive at any assumption. 

One of the things that I helped executives do is to expand their style of decision-making. I’m not trying to correct weaknesses, but I think we can all improve how to approach decisions by understanding how others act in our situation. 

Strategy #3: Play Devil’s Advocate

The final strategy to consider is playing devil’s advocate for others’ ideas. I previously spoke about the origin of this phrase originating from the Catholic church and how they would assign someone to argue against the canonization of a specific individual. 

You can adopt a similar approach in your team meetings. Too often, everyone jumps behind an idea simply because of group pressure or because the idea came from their boss. Executives are always telling me that it’s hard for them to find people who aren’t simply going to say “Yes” to everything that comes out of their mouths.

The key to making this work is to start small and provide your blessing. Bringing this idea to every meeting you’re involved in will cause your entire team or company to grind to a halt.

However, you can start by adopting this idea in your strategic meetings, especially when deciding on a new approach. It’s at these points when you need a devils’ advocate the most. Having someone pushback on minor tactics isn’t going to be as helpful, especially once you’re trying to gain speed.

If you haven’t come across as open to feedback in the past, you will need to work harder to adopt this. Your team might have learned to avoid giving you feedback because of how you might react or what you might say. 

Communicate that you’re working on changing how you receive feedback and that you will be asking for it going forward. Do your best to manage your reaction, especially if you’re hearing things you weren’t expecting. Like any skill, it gets easier as you practice it.

Data isn’t just about the numbers. It can help inform our decisions but better yet, it can help us hone our intuition. That is one of the most exciting and underrated aspects of data.

One more thing before you go!

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