The Role of Intuition in Decision Making: Can a Project Manager Trust Their Gut Feeling Over Data?

Lately, there are lots of headlines screaming about the takeover of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the projects, I want to set the record straight: AI isn’t about to replace the Project Manager. Yes, we live in a time where data analytics and algorithmic predictions are at the forefront, shaping how we execute projects. Beneath the glamorous sheen of 010101010101 lies an often-underestimated dynamic of project management: intuition.

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Intuition, also known as “gut feeling,” is an instinctive response or immediate understanding of something, not always supported by conscious reasoning. It’s that inner voice or nudge that often goes against the grain, challenging the prevailing logic of spreadsheets and data visualizations. In a world that’s becoming more quantified by the day, where does this instinctual, almost primal sense fit in the decision-making process of a Project Manager?

Intuition vs. Data

Trusting data over intuition seems like a no-brainer. Data is objective, quantifiable, and replicable. It’s a solid foundation on which stakeholders can discuss, deliberate, and decide. Intuition, however, is murky. It’s personal, subjective, and challenging to communicate.

But!!!!!  It is crucial to remember that intuition isn’t necessarily the opposite of rational thought or data. It’s the culmination of a person’s experiences, knowledge, and subconscious understanding. Every experience a PM has – from the success and failures of past projects to interpersonal interactions [and hopefully continual review of lessons learned] – feeds into their intuitive sense. In many cases, this gut feeling might be the brain’s way of recognizing patterns or anomalies that aren’t immediately obvious in the data.

Here is what I see as the Value of Intuition in Project Management

  1. Rapid Decision Making: In the fast-paced world of projects, there are moments when decisions need to be made swiftly. Waiting for comprehensive data can lead to missed opportunities. Intuition can guide a PM towards a decision when time is of the essence.
  2. Handling Unprecedented Situations: When faced with a scenario that doesn’t have historical data, intuition, built upon years of experience, can be a reliable guide.
  3. Understanding Team Dynamics: Data might provide insights into performance metrics, but intuition plays a crucial role in grasping the more intangible aspects of team dynamics, morale, and motivation.
  4. Filling in the Gaps: No data is perfect. There will always be gaps or situations where the available data doesn’t tell the whole story. In these cases, intuition can help PMs read between the lines.

Here are what I see as the Risks of Relying Solely on Intuition

While there are benefits to trusting one’s gut, it’s essential to acknowledge the pitfalls of relying solely on intuition:

  1. Bias and Misjudgment: Humans are susceptible to various cognitive biases, which can distort intuitive judgment. Overconfidence, confirmation bias, or anchoring can lead a PM astray.
  2. Inconsistency: Unlike data, which remains consistent over time, intuition can be influenced by a person’s current emotional state, health, or external pressures.
  3. Difficulty in Justification: In a stakeholder meeting, it’s far easier to justify a decision backed by data than one based purely on a gut feeling.

It is all about Balance.

For a Project Manager, the key lies not in choosing data over intuition or vice versa but in understanding when to lean on which:

  1. Use Data as the Foundation: Always begin with the available data. Let it form the baseline of your decision-making process.
  2. Listen to Your Gut: When the data is ambiguous, or you believe there’s more to the story, trust your intuition. But also, take a moment to understand why you feel a certain way.
  3. Collaboration and Discussion: If your intuition contradicts the data, discuss it with your team. They might offer perspectives or insights that you hadn’t considered.
  4. Constantly Learn and Adapt: Post-decision, reflect on the outcome. If a gut decision led to success, what did you recognize that the data didn’t show? If it was a mistake, what bias might have led you astray?

In an era dominated by data, intuition might seem like an archaic tool. Yet, the best Project Managers recognize that their strength lies in blending the computational power of data with the human touch of intuition. After all, projects are undertaken by humans, for humans. So, while data can guide the path, it’s the human spirit, intuition included, that truly drives a project forward.

What do you think?

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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