Project Management

Risks and rewards of making project decisions based on gut feelings

An expert weighs in on the potential advantages and disadvantages of trusting your intuition while leading a project.

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Gut feelings play a role in most people's everyday decision making. Hopefully, people look at the facts first and rely on their gut to help affirm whether they're on the right track. This should also be the case when it comes to project management decisions and gut feelings.

In a 2014 study by the FORTUNE Knowledge Group (PDF), it's reported that approximately 62% of executives trust their gut when it comes to decision making, and "61% further believe that emotional insight enhances data interpretation." The report goes on to say "65% of executives agree that an increasingly complex business environment has made it more difficult to base decisions on purely 'functional factors,' such as cost, quality or efficiency."

What is a gut feeling, and what does it have to do with project management?

A gut feeling can be defined as instincts or subconscious thoughts that are used in our decision-making process based on past experiences, knowledge, logic, emotions, intellect, awareness, and circumstances.

To a great extent, a gut feeling is an intangible, instinctually calculated guess, and there are risks to trusting it. You need to understand what's at risk when turning to your gut (or instincts) for decision making, and weigh those risks carefully when also considering the potential benefits.

SEE: 10 best practices for successful project management

Benefits of acting on gut feelings for project work

  • When there's an absence of factual data and precise measurement is not required, your gut feelings can often help to bridge the gap to assist in knowing which direction to go with your project.
  • In combination with other information and data, a gut feeling can be a strong ally if bias is removed from the equation and factual information comprises the majority of the decision. Many highly successful project managers and leaders have been known to utilize this with regularity when making high-level strategic plans, as it allows them to engage a multifaceted approach.
  • Because gut feeling is to a great extent an intangible, instinctually calculated guess, there are some risks, but when a gut feeling is combined with quantifiable data, it has the potential to offer a powerful mechanism for identifying more options with better results than just using data.
  • This type of thinking may allow for a higher level of adaptability, flexibility, and multidimensional analysis. Professionals who have been successful in habitually interlacing intuition with data may be more likely to strengthen this ability, and therefore increase their likelihood of success in its continued use.

Risks of acting on gut feelings for project work

  • If gut feelings are used as a substitute for common sense or sound judgment based on concrete data, you run the risk of missing signs of trouble. Resist the urge to allow a gut feeling to override important fact- and figure-based calculations, as they serve a specific purpose, and offer precise information to ensure key performance indicators (KPI) are identified, captured and documented. These KPIs will need to be referred to if issues arise later.
  • Quality-based metrics are particularly important in specific industries. These metrics are typically highly precise and sensitive, making a project manager's inclination to use his/her gut feeling a likely poor choice.
  • Stakeholder needs drive decision making throughout the life of a project; these requirements should not be dismissed or displaced by your gut feeling. It is the responsibility of the project manager to offer insights based on experience, knowledge, and instinct, but not to the exclusion of business and project requirements. It's important to make an effort to remove personal bias from gut-based decisions.
  • It can become too easy to be complacent once your gut feeling has been proven successful. Know that it can also very quickly and easily prove you wrong and result in disaster if you're not careful.

SEE: 7 ways to disaster proof your projects

Conclusion

Regardless of the business or project decision, it's important to remember that a gut feeling isn't magic, nor is it a guarantee of success. A gut feeling should be used as just another tool in your belt to help solidify the direction of your decisions. Yes, some professionals and executives have been very successful in relying heavily on it, but as the saying goes "past performance is not an indication of future performance."

You should resist the urge to act on gut feelings with disregard to the opinions and experiences of others, concrete data, and other pertinent factors necessary for project success. There will be times to rely on gut feelings to varying degrees while leading projects—-remember to use sound judgment.

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About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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