Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Intuition and startups…

Because startup managers operate (as Eric Ries likes to say) in a zone of uncertainty, I believe that they need to make maximum possible use of a little-appreciated cognitive faculty we all have – intuition.

Now, I have to say that I strongly disagree with the definitions of intuition commonly used, particularly philosophical definitions (and especially Immanuel Kant’s). Wikipedia is also unhelpful, insofar as its core definition of “thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection” is far closer to ‘instinct’ and/or ‘unconscious reasoning’ – and I think that intuitions need have nothing to do with speed, and can also involve a lot of deep reflection. Really, to me the essence of  intuition is captured only very imperfectly in all of these descriptions.

Rather, having thought about intuition for the last 25 years, I think a more useful definition of it goes like this:

Whereas logic is the means by which we combine certainties together, intuition is the means by which we combine uncertainties together.

But this is not to say that I think startup managers should rely purely on intuition: no, I think they need a rounded combination of MBA-style thinking (based on financial and situational logic) and intuition (based on fathoming how all the incomplete / unreliable / agenda-coloured  pieces of knowledge fit together), and the good judgement to know when the two are applicable. Basically, you need to be good in certain and uncertain domains: logic and intuition are not either-or choices, you need both.

All the same, show me an individual piece of knowledge that is absolutely certain and I’ll show you a tautology (real-world world data always have epistemologically fuzzy ‘haloes’ around them), so to a very large degree you need logic and intuition to make sense of anything. Hence, if you put on your best Harvard Business School Professor hat and try to reduce everything to flat scientific facts ready to be logically combined, you’ll end up painting a very unrepresentative picture – yet this is the conceptual bedrock on which  the whole MBA ‘case study’ approach is built (and so is the reason why ‘pure’ MBAs are unsuited to running startups). Similarly, the whole ‘business plan’ culture is based on the same presumptions of contextual, operational and financial certainty, which is probably why they are proving less and less useful as time goes by.

Ultimately, logic helps you work with data that you pretend is ‘knowably certain’, and helps you answer questions: while intuition helps you work with data that you pretend is ‘knowably uncertain’, and helps you ask questions. So, intuition is what you use when you to try to give shape to uncertainties – essentially, to make them manageable – which is therefore why startup managers need it so much!

Note that there are a few people who get at least some of this right, most notably the “Recognition Primed Decision” (RPD) literature. But honestly, I’m not aware of a whole lot of useful stuff on intuition available in any form out there – do any business schools run modules on business intuition? (I would happily run one, but I’m not aware of any demand for this.)

In the end, even if you can’t define intuition or read much about it, startup managers still need to be able to use every day – which is probably why running a startup is hard!


Comments on: "Intuition and startups…" (4)

  1. Nick,

    Have you heard of obliquity? Its a recent book by John Kay. Despite his MBA association (he taught business strategy at LBS & ran Oxford’s business school for a while) I think you’ll enjoy his thinking on decision-making 🙂

    last book recommendation… i promise!

    • Phil: thanks for the feedback, “Obliquity” sounds like a very cool book (I’ve just ordered a copy), & I’ll post a review here soon… Also, when I flicked through “Managers Not MBAs”, it came across as a bit of an enthusiastic mess, but it’s clear you’re absolutely right that Mintzberg was indeed trying to construct a kind of anti-MBA (or at least an ‘antidote to MBA thinking’) course. So, I don’t think it’s the whole answer but I suspect it would be possible to construct an answer out of it – a very good first step! 😉

  2. […] suspect the answer will turn out to be closely related to what I discussed in my post on intuition & startups, but as you’ll see, it’s a bit of a subtle one. It runs like […]

  3. […] the key attribute you’d need to cultivate is intuition: I’ve blogged elsewhere about how entrepreneurs need intuition, which I define as “the means by which we combine uncertainties“ – perhaps Voynich […]

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