Intuition Driven Management

Software development is full of different approaches to programming referred to as the DDs like DDD, RDD, TDD, BDD and so on. Each of these has one underlying principle that’s at the heart of that specific approach. Turning into a manager from a developer background, I cannot help but use a similar terminology to describe a style of management based around intuition that helps me a lot at work — Intuition Driven Management.

Relationships & Intution

People, ideas, and hardware — in that order!
— John Boyd

Intuition may seem something totally out of place in today’s workplace which puts much emphasis on being data driven and following formal analysis. For a manager, running the numbers and tracking status reports are important but what’s missed is the fundamental fact that management is essentially about working together with people.

Keeping aside the narratives of hierarchy, a manager’s ability to have trusting relationships with people on his team is of prime importance to achieve significant results together. Anything less than that would mean it’s a contractual or a command and control mode of working — which is neither humane nor sustainable for a group of people working closely day in day out.

And when we talk about meaningful relationships, intuition is a key intrinsic capacity of ours that helps us in navigating them. Then why don’t we rely more on intuition at work? There’s no reason to turn intuition off at work. In fact, you can’t. Despite under-appreciation and somewhat imposed censoring of intuition at workplace, it doesn’t stops intuition to operate as step into the office. You may not realize it or not, you are working with intuition on many more occasions than you are aware of — it influences your decision making all the time.

Intuition at Work

Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind.
— Albert Einstein

What can help a manager vastly at his job is to build upon empathetic relationships with team to develop further his sense of intuition. However, unlike many other management skills, intuition is not something that can be directly worked upon. The best you can do is to create right situations and context for intuition to come into play. For this, few things I believe that help are — a sense of ownership coupled with active immersion into team and it’s activities followed by stepping back on occasions to connect the dots.

Ownership

Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.
― José Saramago

Authentic intuition doesn’t kicks in if are just watching the show from the sidelines. You won’t be able to learn much meaningful by passively tracking KPIs and status reports without much involvement in the action.

What you need is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls skin in the game. Skin in the game enforces contact with reality and makes you care more about what’s going on around you. What that means is that you as a manager take full responsibility of commitments and actions of your team. The buck stops at you — this intrinsically makes you care about your mission, your team working with you on it and the outcomes thus achieved collectively. You make an effort to understand members of your team, their actions and contexts with genuine curiosity and empathy.

Immersion

You can observe a lot just by watching.
— Yogi Berra

Mostly, managers try to stay on track for their projects by jumping between these two extremes — either relying solely on high level status tracking or turning to micro-management. In the former, managers, staying too distant, lose touch with the team and are deprived of the subtle sensibility that comes out of working closely together. Micro-management on the other hand is fundamentally built on lack of trust. Needless to say that, as micro-managers attempt to control each and every activity around them, the approach never scales.

A more positive way, being referred to as immersion here, begins with trusting your people, empathetically understanding their contexts and constantly staying in tune with them. This helps to develop a more intimate sense of what’s going on and to where you as a team are heading to. For this, there’s no substitute to face to face interactions. Along with your regular one-on-ones, try to reach out to your team and talk to them more often. Join a conversations here, initiate a discussion there — sometimes you would get more out of talking with a teammate down the corridor and chats around water cooler compared to the status reports prepared by meticulous data collection. You need however the ability to observe and listen in an active and non-judgmental way.

It’s important to focus not only on direct conversations and the messages communicated explicitly. Try to learn as well the art of intuitively interpreting the body language. Make an effort to be aware of the subtle shifts in behavior of someone and non-verbal signals transmitted in the interactions. See and sense what’s going on around you — be perceptive of the feelings expressed in facial expressions and emotions in the body postures.

This idea described as immersion here, as I found in my research while writing this story, is unsurprisingly quite an aged one. Its quite close to what’s referred to as Gemba Walk in Japan and MBWA (management by walking/wandering around) in the West.

Stepping Back

It is always with excitement that I wake up in the morning wondering what my intuition will toss up to me, like gifts from the sea. I work with it and rely on it. It’s my partner… Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next
— Jonas Salk

Being more in touch with people in itself offers lots of direct benefits. For example, it will help you immediately identify some challenges your team may be facing.

But you can gain a lot more profound insights by stepping back a bit — distancing yourself from work when you are in a passive state of mind like taking a shower, on a walk or simply sitting quietly. This is where your intuition tries to put together the small bits of information collected earlier. To help connect the dots and anticipate and see things early. Try and see what troubles you and what excites you — these are the things that may translate into problems or opportunities you may have.

An example most people would identify is when you get this feeling that someone on your team may soon be resigning and leaving the team. A couple of typical signs observed are less than usual level of productivity and reduced interest in interactions with teammates. Typically, its in catching such cues where intuition helps. If your sensing of situation is correct, it may give you some time to try and reverse the individual’s decision or start preparing for a plan B early.

Other examples:

  • Was someone in the team hesitantly trying to tell you that he’s not confident about an implementation he’s working on? Implying perhaps he’s facing challenges on a critical path task which in turn may delay an important project milestone.
  • What’s the overall mood and energy of the team like — is there too much optimism or pessimism in the team? Is complacency creeping in after recent good deliveries?
  • In one of the conversation, based on questions and concerns raised, did it feel like that a teammate may not be working with right contextual information?
  • Is a direct report of yours showing signs of burn out? Or perhaps she’s turning into workaholic while couple of others may be slacking too much?
  • Is that big decision you are planning to take “feeling right”? Perhaps one of your key assumptions is a weak one? There are times when you can feel with your whole body if a step you are going to take is the right one or not.
  • Is their a tingling feeling of happiness lurking about somewhere about an favorable opportunity that was unseen so far.
  • Why is that small failure found in tests last week taking so long to be fixed? Is it a sign of a hidden bigger problem that may need a redesign in the core system?
  • A usually proactive guy on the team seems to be procrastinating on a key implementation? He wasn’t sounding confident last week either. Perhaps, he’s not fully on board with the design or planning decisions taken earlier?
  • In a project status meeting, two guys were cutting each other other out a lot — is that a sign of conflict or interpersonal issue that you may need to work on?

Conclusion

We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate… Our perceptions and intuitions, as expressed in deeds, can be superior to what we know and tabulate, discuss in words, and teach in a classroom.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

To be clear, I’m not suggesting to simply follow every hunch you have. You’ll be able to generate a lot of insights but would still need the ability to distinguish signal from noise. Make an effort to be practical and realistic. For some decisions, you may rely on formal analysis by trying to back them up by more facts, or on another occasions a discussion with a colleague could help.

Finally, to summarize, given that intuition plays a big role in our decision making, what’s described above is a way to craft it further at the workplace. The point is not whether to rely on intuition or not, but how to do so — in a way that’s more empathetic, responsible and closer to reality. In my experience, close relationships and honest conversations with people around are an effective way to achieve that. It may not look anything like a well defined process — but the thing to remember is that profound insights arise mostly from somewhat erratic circumstances. Those first signs for threats and opportunities do not come from analysis of large data sets. Mostly, it’s the people involved directly who identify them first because their intuition points them to those ideas.