Trusting your Gut

process engineering consultant
Photo credit: KayVee.INC via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I recently read two articles on “Trusting Your Gut” in two completely different settings. The first was an editorial for Chemical Engineering Progress by its Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Mascone. The other was in the McKinsey Quarterly, an article on “How to Test Your Decision-Making Instincts” by Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead. In both, there was an agreement that trusting your gut is OK within certain boundaries.

As engineers, we depend upon data and analysis. Still, sometimes we make decisions based upon instinct, intuition our past experiences. In the Harvard Business Review, Aledn Hayashi termed this “cross-indexing.” It is the ability to see similar patterns in disparate fields and to elevate intuitive skills from good to subline. Hayashi also points out that the power of cross-indexing increases with the amount of disparate material that can be applied…this comes with experience.

Campbell and Whitehead illustrate four tests that help us gain confidence that we are drawing on the correct experiences and emotions:

  1. The familiarity test: Have we frequently experienced identical or similar situations? To put it another way, how many uncertainties are there in this situation?
  2. The feedback test: Did we get reliable feedback in past situations? Are there many “yes” people that prevent this feedback?
  3. The measured-emotions test: Do we experience heightened emotions in similar or related situations? Are there biases in the situation?
  4. The independence test: Are we likely to be influenced by personal interests or attachments? For instance, the Chick-fil-a cows campaign to inspire hungry people to “eat mor chikn.”

If one of these tests fail, then more data or more challenge is necessary. We should never ignore our gut. The key is to know when to listen to what it’s telling us. In process development and in this blog, we always say “test, test, and test.”

Sometimes testing data is not available. Then, as long as there is transparency with the engineering team, client, and management, trusting your gut is OK.

Have you had any specific experiences where “the gut: has been advantageous? Let me know.