During a Trivial Pursuit game with my family years ago, my two younger sisters were on one team. Whenever it was their turn, they would debate the question between themselves, veering off into all sorts of unrelated topics, false memories, and logical fallacies. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as I imagined how far from the truth their answer would be, but time and again, they surprised me by coming up with the correct answer.

In retrospect, I think that one or both of my sisters must have known every correct answer, but they didn’t know how they knew it. All the so-called reasoning that led them to the answer was just a way to chew up some time while their brains worked on fetching it in the background. When the right answer finally surfaced, they recognized it as correct. It was one of the more striking examples of intuition in action that I have ever witnessed.

I had to admire my sisters’ feat, but I could never imitate it or advise anyone else to attempt to do so. Like most people in my profession, I prefer sound logic and verifiable data when available. Perhaps more importantly, I want to know where I can’t be certain, and to what degree. But geeks like me sometimes suffer from an inability to make decisions, precisely because we’re aware of all of our unanswered questions.

Even though “knowledge is power,” in business you can’t always afford to wait for knowledge; sometimes you need to make a decision based on what little you know, informed by your past experience. That’s where intuition plays a useful role even in a technical occupation like IT consulting. Some people refer to it as “trusting your gut,” but I prefer to think of it as knowing something without knowing precisely why.

I don’t want to encourage magical thinking, so here’s a concrete example that’s simpler than your average software problem: a card game. In almost every game involving a deck of cards, it benefits your decision making to know what cards the other players have — but that information is usually hidden. As you become a more experienced player, you notice what cards have been played; perhaps you even keep a mental count of the more important cards that you see, and note behaviors that might indicate that your opponent does or does not have a specific card. If you keep playing long enough, you’ll “know” where certain cards are, without any scientific proof. It’s not magic — your brain can perceive a pattern based on your past experience for which you don’t yet possess a theory.

The same thing happens in IT consulting and in other businesses. When you’ve been there many times before, you can smell when something isn’t right — even if you can’t put a name on it. You can also notice an opportunity before you’ve thought of a plan to exploit it.

Thus it seems obvious that the more you know about a subject, the better your intuitions will be. In practice, though, once we’ve invested a lot of energy into a canonical way of thinking about a subject, it’s difficult for us to let any thought outside that discipline receive any attention. We can become too narrowly focused to pick up on other cues. In my experience, the best intuitions come to me in a situation where I have a lot of related experience, but just enough ignorance to be novel.

That makes IT consulting a good career for me. All of my clients share the common problems of software development, but their individual challenges differ enough to keep me on my toes. I still strive for hard data where it can be found, and I work now more than ever on self-education, but where those fall short, I’m learning not to overthink it and to trust my intuitions.

How do your intuitions come into play in your IT consulting work? Tell us in the discussion.

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