Mostly we value people with great work ethic – systematic approach, deep thinking and hard work. But every now and then we are in awe of those few who are spontaneous and end up pulling things off with sheer instinct. This article tries to understand if it is actually possible to succeed by just ‘winging it’? Can we be a Maverick, the character played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, pulling off all those stunts by following his gut? Unfortunately, the author of this piece in The Guardian highlights research that concludes otherwise saying what often seems like an instinct is a result of past experiences or indeed several hours of training which in turn helps create muscle memories or mental models depending on the work in question.
“The cognitive psychologist Gary Klein has spent his career researching intuition in decision-making; 35 years on, his research on how firefighters act swiftly under pressure in tough situations is still cited. “We weren’t looking for intuition,” he says. Rather, his team’s original theory was that firefighters might be rapidly evaluating two options when they decided how to tackle a fire. “They told us: ‘We don’t compare any options.’ More than that, they said: ‘We never make any decisions.’” Klein didn’t understand how firefighters could believe only one course of action was possible and land on it without making comparisons.
Further digging revealed a different picture. With 15 to 20 years of experience, Klein explains, the firefighters were classifying the situation based on fires they had seen – a process known as “pattern matching”. The second step Klein called “mental simulation”: the firefighters would visualise how a course of action would run and adjust their model accordingly. “It’s a blend of intuition and analysis,” says Klein. The process was near-instantaneous. “Most decisions were made in less than a minute.”
So, what looks like winging it can, in fact, be instinctive decision-making backed up by experience – what Poole calls “really quick heuristics in your brain … synaptic connections established through years of conditioning”. Leaders who trust that, she says, “are just fucking excellent”.
This decision-making model is common in one of the areas where people are least comfortable with the idea of winging it: healthcare. No one wants to end up in the hands of a seat-of-the-pants neurosurgeon, but Klein’s research suggests medical professionals use intuitive decision-making and gut feeling as a matter of course.
His book The Power of Intuition tells the story of an experienced neonatal intensive care unit nurse accurately diagnosing a baby with sepsis just by walking past the incubator and getting a gut feeling, when a less experienced nurse who had been conscientiously tracking all the infant’s vitals had failed to spot it. “An experienced physician sees a cluster of cues and says sepsis. We’ve heard stories of someone who was just a resident; there was a tough case and they called the attending physician. The attending physician does not even enter the room and from the door just looks at the patient and sees there’s an issue and says: ‘Ah, congestive heart failure.’”
But sometimes we can be wrong about our intuitions as well:
“Intuition of any kind is not infallible. Klein describes it as a “data point”: something to take into consideration, not to accept uncritically. One area in which intuition gives demonstrably poor outcomes is recruitment. As Chamorro-Premuzic explains, unstructured interview processes increase and reinforce conscious and unconscious biases about candidates. We all believe our own intuition to be superior, he says: “In an interview situation, this is a big problem, because hiring managers think they have an ability to see through candidates and to understand whether they are competent.” Companies will spend large budgets on diversity and inclusion, “then tell you they hire for ‘culture fit’ – and the main way to evaluate culture fit is whether somebody ‘feels right’ in a job interview. Even if managers are well-meaning and open-minded, they will gravitate towards candidates who are like them and they are comfortable with.”
Moreover, studies show that people tend to make up their mind in the first 60 or 90 seconds, he says. This is pattern recognition gone wrong, according to Stern. When decision-makers see someone who reminds them of themselves, they think: “Oh yeah, he’s got the right stuff. I used to be like him.”
Donald Trump springs to mind here. I read Klein a typical Trump pronouncement: “I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” It reminds Klein of two dangerous fallacies about intuition: “One, some people think intuition is innate ability, which I don’t think it is; it’s based on experience. Two, intuition is a general skill and will apply in lots of different situations. I don’t think that’s true.” Having decent intuition in an area where you have professional experience – “like real estate”, he says, pointedly – does not mean you have a transferable skill.
Talking to people who admit to winging it reveals that, mainly, they mean the “good” kind of intuition: calling on a wealth of relevant experience and deploying it in defined circumstances. That often involves an element of performance, where spontaneity can be the secret ingredient.
Susannah, who works in publishing, says: “I love to wing it in sales presentations. When I wing it, I suddenly find a new angle; it works every time. But only, I think, because I’m winging stuff I already know deeply.” Kathy, a senior financial services strategist, says: “If it’s something I don’t know at all, I won’t wing it, but in my area of expertise I’m the queen of prep five minutes before the meeting.””

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