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Pairing gut feeling with analytical data-backed thinking helps executives and individuals alike make better, faster, and more accurate decisions and gives them more confidence in their choices
Colleen O'Connor, Associate

Pairing data and intuitive thinking is key to more accurate and successful executive decision-making. Here are three strategies to keep in mind. 


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Nearly half of American executives rely on their gut over facts and figures to make decisions about how to run their business. In fact, throughout history, gut feeling, instinct, and intuition have been touted as central pillars in decision making – with Steve Jobs even proclaiming, “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect.”

So why then are highly data-driven organizations three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision making compared to those who rely less on data?

Does this mean that those who rely on intuition are putting their businesses at risk? Or, perhaps, are intuition and data not as mutually exclusive as we may think?

My name is Colleen O'Connor and I work with our energy and digital teams here at Oliver Wyman. I've had the pleasure of helping companies adopt and roll out sustainability strategies that are good for the planet and for the bottom line, often crafting investor narratives that weave together data and storytelling to paint the most accurate, exciting roadmap and vision for the future.

Prior to Oliver Wyman, I worked on on the ground consulting teams in Japan, China, and Peru. Despite the geographical differences among North America and my work abroad, two key questions prevailed.

What is the best approach to executive decision making? And what role do intuition and data play?

Now when it comes to forging a sustainability strategy, intuition helps companies understand the importance of working towards, say, carbon neutrality.

When you think about it, the idea of contributing to a world in a way that protects our planet is intuitive. It’s that feeling in your gut that you're doing the right thing. But, as we've established, gut feeling and intuition alone are not sufficient to guide major strategic decisions and are often not substantial enough to convince investors of the chosen path ahead. This is where we turn to data-driven decision making.

Now, Harvard Business School defines data-driven decision making as “the process of using data, also known as facts, metrics, and insights, to inform your decision-making process and validate a course of action before committing to it.” Seems like a pretty intuitive definition, you might say.

Now, this style of decision making can manifest in numerous ways, including: analyzing historic growth trends to predict market sizes for renewable natural gas or electric vehicles, researching demographic data to determine trends or opportunities, or releasing a survey to aggregate preferences from customers. But, data alone may lead to a false sense of security as data-driven decisions in isolation are made without the subjective consideration of a company's values, ethos, or desired consumer or investor-facing story.

So, if intuition alone lacks the empirical research to back up a decision, but data alone misses the emotional appeal and subjective considerations surrounding a decision, then how are executives supposed to decide anything for the companies they steward?

Intuition and data need not be mutually exclusive. Data helps us make an informed, objective decision while intuition provides the sense check and the subjectivity that is necessary for crafting a compelling investor narrative.

If we return to my earlier example, intuition tells us that adopting a sustainability strategy is the subjectively “right thing” to do for our planet, but it’s the empirical evidence of consumer preferences for climate-conscious brands and the proliferation of profitable, renewable energy sources that provide the data-driven backing for these types of decisions.

And thankfully, I'm not alone in this viewpoint. According to leading industry reports, pairing gut feeling with analytical, data-backed thinking helps executives and individuals alike make better, faster, and more accurate decisions and gives them more confidence in their choices.

So, as companies look to bridge intuition and data, here are three things to keep in mind.

First, democratize data. Make sure everyone from C-suite to analysts has access to refreshed data that is relevant to them. Without centralized data reporting or analytics dashboards, expecting individuals to ground their decision making in data is like asking someone to make you an omelet without the eggs.

Second, use subjective reasoning and intuition to test your data-backed conclusions. Ask yourself, “does this conclusion or suggested path forward align with our values?” Data aside, “do we think this is a good idea?” If the answer to either of these questions is no, take a step back and consider what you might be missing.

And third and finally, after a decision has been made, marry your empirical and your instinctive reasoning to create a narrative, whether investor, consumer, or employee facing, that appeals to both their intellect and their intuition.

I'm Colleen O'Connor, and this has been my take on executive decision making.

This transcript has been edited for clarity