What’s the difference between your “gut” and your intuition?

As product managers, we’re told to rely on our intuition to make decisions only in the rarest of occasions. Instead, our primary objective is to investigate the data, listen to the voice of our users, and uncover consumer-centric insights that lead to right-fit decisions that can be further tested.

In reality, gathering the amount of data required to make the “right” decision every time is expensive and takes time. Very few companies have the luxury to wait until new insights are formed before decisions can be made. In those cases, we like to say we “go with our gut” to make the best choice possible in the moment.

There is a time for collecting insights and a time for making decisions. Neither activity is more or less important than the other. Neither activity should block the other from happening.

Far too often, companies prioritize one of these activities while demonizing the other. Companies that prioritize research and insights are harsh critics of quick decision-making because the wrong decision can have a snowball effect on a product’s long-term success. Decision-making cultures similarly fail to understand how greater consumer understanding can create exponentially greater wins for a product long-term.

This is not a vocabulary lesson, but since I need two similar-sounding terms to make my point, I want to juxtapose the idea of thinking with your “gut” with the idea of acting on “intuition.”

Gut-based decision-makers generally only see the impact of short-term gains and spend a disproportionate amount of energy focusing on completing only the tasks in front of them. Most of the decisions that are made in these cultures tend to be biased toward internal (e.g. “gut”) priorities or information. The gut is resistant to outside information and prefers a steady diet of the things it’s used to consuming. Gut decisions require little thought and rely more on the automated responses of the decision-makers.

On the other hand, intuition represents a mature and growing understanding of the context of any given decision. Like your gut, intuition is still internal to the decision-maker, but it allows for constant input from sources that are the most well positioned to reduce the decision-maker’s gut biases. Crafting this kind of intuition gives the decision-maker the freedom to make fast decisions responsibly because they always have the most relevant insights available to assist in the decision. The intuitive decision-maker’s decisions are actually not their own.

Why does this matter?

In my experience, companies generally “hire” research teams for a single purpose or project. Even if your company has an internal research discipline (either qualitative or quantitative), they’re more likely to be spending their time gathering information to support a single, high-priority decision. This practice can help companies reduce the amount of bias that goes into making that decision, but it will do very little to change how an organization thinks about its customers, its products or its industry. Every other decision you make will still be biased and fail to achieve the results you could be recognizing if you’d spent time crafting a more intuitive mindset.

The alternative solution is to partner with a research team who is given the responsibility to craft an ongoing research agenda on your behalf. This team should be given exceedingly difficult objectives to achieve and should be allowed to ask open-ended questions (“What is it were possible to 10x our business in six months?”) rather than tactical ones (“How can we make this checkout flow resonate better with our users?”). Most importantly, they should be held accountable for achieving results by the product team.

This level of freedom is understandably frightening to leaders who prefer to make decisions with their guts. However, their businesses will fail to see the forest through the trees and will ultimately fall as their more intuitive competition rises around them.