But back to those firefighters. As psychologist Gary Klein says, firefighters have a very clear sense about how a fire is going to burn from their experiences of how fires have burned in the past. The same is true of a surgeon when she carries out an operation, a football player when he is about to take that penalty kick or a baseball player preparing to catch that fly ball. The problem they are faced with is complex, the mathematics required to predict where the parabolic trajectory of the ball will take it, even more so. And yet the chances are all in favour of the player getting the ball more times than the computer will get the right answer if it is asked to predict the exact position where the ball will drop.
Why? Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, puts it thus: ‘When a man throws a ball high into the air and catches it again, he behaves as if he has solved a set of differential equations in predicting the trajectory of the ball. He may neither know nor care what this differential equation is, but it doesn’t affect his skill with the ball. At some subconscious level, something functionally equivalent to the mathematical calculations is going on.’
Think about how any one factor may affect the trajectory of that ball on every occasion it is pitched and caught – prevailing weather conditions, terrain, arc of travel, strength of throw, distance of throw, the speed of the pitcher, the strike of the bat, the pace of the catcher and so on. The list is endless, and yet good catchers invariably catch their ball, just as our surgeon completes her operation and our fire captain knows when to pull their colleagues out of a burning building just before the ceiling and floor collapse.
All of these things happen because of one factor: finely honed instincts. Klein has studied how our instinct works from the 1980s onwards, by first looking at how the military and fire teams make such difficult decisions about what is about to happen, as opposed to what is happening.
In summary, he has this to say: ‘Firefighters who said they ‘just knew what to do’ were actually relying on what their years of experience bought them – the ability to recognise patterns, a sense of what is typical, the ability to see anomalies and their beliefs about what is possible.’
And this is what the baseline of intuition is about – not guesswork, but the System 1 (logical) and System 2 (emotional) hemispheres of your brain (read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow on this) using whole brain principles and faculties to convert the kind of tacit knowledge you derive through experience into explicit knowledge and foresight that can be passed on, or used to better understand the possible futures a brand, business or organisation could be faced with tomorrow. As Klein says, ‘intuition is the way we translate our experiences into judgements and decisions’.
At its most basic level, the process is a familiar one to anybody who has studied memes, trend forecasting or machine learning. Over time (and throughout history) patterns can and will be repeated. Certainly, when we work in a particular field or specialism, we expose ourselves to a wide range of happenings or events that may seem new or different at the moment we encounter them (due perhaps to our youth and relative inexperience in a particular field). But in time these become familiar and part of the pattern we recognise, and indeed can extrapolate on.
Once we recognise this pattern, according to Klein, we have a much better understanding of what the situation is – and, more importantly, the sensory, emotional and contextual cues that suggest how and why these patterns will pan out in a particular way. FMRI scans and cognitive research show that it is not a case of jumping to conclusions. People such as our surgeon and firefighters are accessing parts of the brain that contain memories of how things panned out in the past. They are doing so rapidly and, from their point of view, subconsciously. In this instance, their brain acts as a vast filing system that prompts or nudges them when they encounter a situation in the present that may have similar properties to one encountered in the past. They experience a mental flash and know the right thing to do, but in essence they are using their collective knowledge of an experience to do the following:
_ Observe the current situation as it is playing out in real time
_ Draw on their theoretical knowledge and past experiences to contextualise and further enhance their current actions
_ Do this via a set of action scripts or narrative frameworks, which are in reality the routine (= instinctive) ways we have learned to respond to familiar patterns over time
_ Use these heuristics to spot or recognise anomalies, or weak signals, because they sit outside what is expected and familiar
_ Use previous case studies (also known as mental models) combined with these anomalies to adjust these scripts or frameworks if and when the context surrounding them changes
_ Build mental simulations or more complex scenarios to accommodate these changes and the potential future impacts they might have
In short, cues let us recognise patterns; patterns drive our action scripts; our action scripts, in turn, are assessed through our mental simulations and our mental simulations are driven by our mental models. Experts in intuition refer to this as the Recognition-Primed Decision Model (RPD). Forecasters generally will recognise this as a process that holds true in their own field, where their experience and heterophilious outlook allows them to develop a wide-ranging back catalogue of knowledge and insight across a range of sectors, where their real-time horizon-scanning combined with their experience and cross-sector knowledge enables them to recognise patterns or identify anomalies, and where their existing experience is combined with external research and expert knowledge to determine how these anomalies or new pattern shifts will play out in the future.
Then, and only then, should facts be used, data deployed, case-studies drawn on. And this, of course, was the failing of the aforementioned CMO. He deployed these first to stultifyingly dull effect, and the result? A concept as still-born as Donald Trump’s hairdo – all helmet-proof and no imagination, all marketing and no concept. All data, in other words, and no daring, as in no reason to buy it and less reason to use it.
So the next time a client asks for proof or challenges your credentials on the basis that gut intuition isn’t good enough, remind them that this is what successful entrepreneurial disruptors do every day, while data jockeys, on the other hand, ride the horse and the idea in most cases, into the ground and ever downwards, so the bottom of the barrel isn’t just scraped, its bottom is breached in the process. Be wary of intuition if you must, but be warier still of the data clouts who challenge it.
Martin Raymond is co-founder of The Future Laboratory. You can order a signed copy of his latest book, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook, below.