Train your gut feeling through continuous learning!

Complex situations resist our analytical capacities, they are unpredictable. In these situations, we cannot base our decisions on data. Hence, our decisions often based on intuition, gut feeling, and rules of thumb. Through continuous learning, we can train our intuition and become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments.

This post was written as a guest post on the Learning and Networking Blog of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC

The world is getting more complex. How often have we heard this statement? Is it true? It certainly feels that way.

The employment and income network of SDC is venturing this year into a discussion of employment and income in fragile environments. This means we are adding to our normal layer of complex market, financial, and educational systems another layer of complexity related to conflict, natural disasters, and political uncertainty. To give an example of this complexity, the illustration below shows the systemic analysis of the US counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan:

Gut Feeling

Hence, we need to become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments.

When Dave Snowden, a well-known expert in strategy development and complexity, talks about complex systems, he often refers to them as the domain of ‘heuristics’, in contrast to complicated or simple problems where we can fall back on expert knowledge and good or best practices.

I googled ‘heuristics’ and landed – where else – on wikipedia, which told me that:

Heuristic refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution; mental short cuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense. In more precise terms, heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and machines.

Ok, so that means that in complex environments, we need to use rules of thumb, and educated guesses to manage our projects? It turns out that this is very much what is happening in reality. Despite all the talk of good and best practice, the daily meal of project managers and staff is to take decisions of how to react to their environment less based on exact data (which project manager has that …) and more on their gut feeling. Or not?

So the question becomes how can we cultivate our gut feelings, our rules of thumbs, our intuition? Its through learning. Learning directly translates into experience, helps us to take educated guesses, decide intuitively based on the little information we have.

To make a long story short, learning is crucial when working in complex system. We cannot learn enough. How is the market system working? How is the conflict influencing power relations and, ultimately, transactions in the vegetable sector? Why are people not trusting the banks? Why do women not want to go to the market place alone? Why are companies not hiring workers from vocational schools? Why do the farmers react in a counter-intuitive way to our interventions? Why? What? When? The quicker we can turn learning into action, the more effective will our projects become.

So if you are confronted with increased complexity, don’t stop asking questions, try to find out how things work, why things work the way they do. Act on the learning directly, don’t wait for a next phase. Don’t stop learning because you need to focus on the implementation of activities written down in your logframe. And most of all, don’t be afraid to fail, and admit failure, for it is failure we learn most of.

2 thoughts on “Train your gut feeling through continuous learning!

  1. cheulrico

    Dear Marcus,
    I like when you relate complexity to softer areas of feelings and intuition. The reality of our – at least my own – knowledge is often fuzzy, based on experience and nevertheless relevant for decision making.
    When you highlight the necessity of continuous learning when working with an in complex systems it makes the approach easier to follow. For me it is lowering the bar to enter the world of complex systems. In other words, complex should not be complicated.
    Interesting would be for me to know more about, how the content of this blog post related to Daniel Kahneman’s “thinking fast and slow”. As I understand him, there are situation were intuition is superior to analysis and in others it is the other way round. In that sense, when do we should trust our gut feeling and when it is appropriate to follow a more rational strategy?
    Kind regards,

  2. Marcus Jenal

    Hi Ulli. Thanks for your comment. I haven’t read Kahneman’s book, but what I heard and read about it, it is surely a good place to start thinking about how we can use our intuition for decision making in complex systems and when not. I think it is important to point out that our intuition should not necessarily always be the only source of a rational for a decision. Even more: we have to learn how and when to trust our gut feeling and how to improve its reliability, if you want to put it like that.


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