Malcolm Gladwell, in his ground-breaking book ‘Blink’, made a great case for the importance of instinct in business. It argued against the long-standing and traditionally accepted idea that we make better decisions only after processing huge amounts of data, and instead showed how our best decisions are often those we make with our ‘gut’. And as the mountain of data we have available to help us to make more informed decisions grows exponentially with every advance in technology, that question of the relative merits of instinct vs data-based decisions becomes ever more pressing.
Instinct is key
My own experience in business tells me that what Gladwell says is true. I know that in the course of setting up and building OMNIA into the successful organisation it is today, I’ve had to make tens of thousands of decisions – some of them big, some small. And I am certain that the best ones that I’ve made – the ones which have most positively impacted the business – were based on instinct. Why do I know this? Well, because it’s really the only way I’ve ever known how to work.
Central to this way of working is my belief that business has to be about people, and the healthy, mutually beneficial relationships that can form between them. I’ve always believed that these relationships are key to growing a business successfully and sustainably – but what does this have to do with the idea of ‘instinct’?
Well, it’s because I see instinct as the driver that brings these people together. Think about it – we usually form relationships with other people based on our instinctual reaction to them, the way they make us feel – rather than based on any data of any sort. This has all sorts of implications, right throughout our lives in business – it means that instinct plays a fundamental role in the decisions we take about who we’ll go into strategic partnerships with, who we’ll hire or fire, who we’ll put in charge of a team, or who we’ll trust with an important project. Of course, data in its various forms is still important – for example we might look at someone’s sales figures in a certain area if we’re considering them for promotion – but I truly believe that when it comes down to making decisions about people, our instincts about them are the overriding factor.
This might seem unlikely to some – and one reason for this is the nature of the way we talk about ‘instinct’ itself. It seems almost to have a spooky quality about it – it comes from our ‘gut’, people talk about things ‘just feeling wrong’ or they say that they are ‘acting on a hunch’. It’s not the kind of language that is usually used in business, and so it has uncomfortable, fuzzy quality about it.
What lies behind our instincts?
But I actually think that ‘instinct’ is probably just another way of describing the process of remembering how things have made us feel in the past and then applying this to the present situation. Why? Because when I think back to those situations where I have made a decision based on what I would call ‘instinct’, I think that if I were to really dig deep I would actually find some pretty solid reasons for coming to the decision I’ve made.
We often don’t see these reasons in the moment we make the decision – instead we say something ‘just feels right’, and we don’t know why. But I think that with some investigation we might see that we may have a similar experience in the past with another person, or we might recognise something as subtle as an unconscious reaction to someone’s body language.
Instinct, or just data?
So, perhaps all this means is that what we call ‘instinct’ is really nothing more than decision making based on data that we were unaware we’d retained.
Maybe so – but I don’t think that diminishes its value at all. Instinct has played a huge role in the way I’ve done business over the years, and I trust it because it is rooted in my relationships with other people, and how we make each other feel.
And that, ultimately is the most important thing. As the saying goes, people might forget what you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Those feelings are important – because they could well inform the next instinctive decision someone makes about you and your business.