Train your gut feeling through continuous learning!

March 06, 2013 | bit-wartung | Learning Elsewhere, Methods & Tools |


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Complex situations resist our analytical capacities, they are unpredictable. In these situations, we cannot base our decisions on data. Hence, our decisions often based on intuition, gut feeling, and rules of thumb. Through continuous learning, we can train our intuition and become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments.

By Marcus Jenal, Independent Consultant

The world is getting more complex. How often have we heard this statement? Is it true? It certainly feels that way.

The employment and income network of SDC is venturing this year into a discussion of employment and income in fragile environments. This means we are adding to our normal layer of complex market, financial, and educational systems another layer of complexity related to conflict, natural disasters, and political uncertainty. To give an example of this complexity, the illustration below shows the systemic analysis of the US counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan:

Hence, we need to become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments.

When Dave Snowden, a well-known expert in strategy development and complexity, talks about complex systems, he often refers to them as the domain of ‘heuristics’, in contrast to complicated or simple problems where we can fall back on expert knowledge and good or best practices.

I googled ‘heuristics’ and landed – where else – on wikipedia, which told me that:

Heuristic refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution; mental short cuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense. In more precise terms, heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and machines.

Ok, so that means that in complex environments, we need to use rules of thumb, and educated guesses to manage our projects? It turns out that this is very much what is happening in reality. Despite all the talk of good and best practice, the daily meal of project managers and staff is to take decisions of how to react to their environment less based on exact data (which project manager has that …) and more on their gut feeling. Or not?

So the question becomes how can we cultivate our gut feelings, our rules of thumbs, our intuition? Its through learning. Learning directly translates into experience, helps us to take educated guesses, decide intuitively based on the little information we have.

To make a long story short, learning is crucial when working in complex system. We cannot learn enough. How is the market system working? How is the conflict influencing power relations and, ultimately, transactions in the vegetable sector? Why are people not trusting the banks? Why do women not want to go to the market place alone? Why are companies not hiring workers from vocational schools? Why do the farmers react in a counter-intuitive way to our interventions? Why? What? When? The quicker we can turn learning into action, the more effective will our projects become.

So if you are confronted with increased complexity, don’t stop asking questions, try to find out how things work, why things work the way they do. Act on the learning directly, don’t wait for a next phase. Don’t stop learning because you need to focus on the implementation of activities written down in your logframe. And most of all, don’t be afraid to fail, and admit failure, for it is failure we learn most of.

See also:

How to Think with Your Gut by Thomas A. Steward in Business 2.0. via David Snowden’s Blog
Knowledge Management in Complex Adaptive Systems on Marcus Jenal’s Blog
• When is something simple, when complicated, when complex (and when chaotic): The Cynefin Framework on Wikipedia/ on Youtube
Mit vernetzen Ansichten verknüpfem Wissen Komplexität verstehen by Peter Adorr in the Anchor Blog (German only)



Comments to“Train your gut feeling through continuous learning!”

  1. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Markus
    Thanks for your inspiring contribution. It reminded me an article I read in geo years ago about how our gut-brain influences our head brain. Google could not bring back this maybe too old article, but offered another version that also contains interesting background knowledge in addition to your thoughts:
    Best regards

  2. Hi Ernst
    Thanks for your reply. A more recent contribution to the debate comes from Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’. It differentiates in which situations we can trust gut feeling and where we should not and also how to maybe ‘train’ the intuition. I haven’t read the book, but this is what I hear from colleagues that have.

  3. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Marcus, thanks for your blog post. I was attending last week a conference of school directors and quality controllers interested to launch professional learning communities with teaching staff (this seems to be a rather novel concept). One of the conclusions was that as teacher you still can work alone, even in difficult and sometimes complex situations (I was astonished to hear this…). While in international development and cooperation you have to collaborate, projects and programmes are always the product of many; and the complex situations, especially in fragile countries, require joint efforts. By reading your post, 5 days later, I wonder how teachers manage to maintain a one man/ woman show? Do they simply have the better gut feeling? Teachers have to act and react, on the spot. I see rather the problem of the gut feeling not improving… So yes, constant learning and being a reflective practitioner is key in both fields of expertise: education and international cooperation.
    Best, Nadia


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