Intuition – Trust But Verify

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.” He apparently liked this old Russian proverb (doveryai no proveryai) and used it frequently. I too like that proverb and believe we, as leaders, should act upon it in many situations including when inclined to follow our “gut feelings” or intuition. I find it helpful to have a healthy level of skepticism even when it comes to my own intuition, first thoughts and inclinations.

Most of us have seen and understand the correct answer to the question asked in the image above. However, despite knowing the right answer I am confident that your intuition immediately shouted out that in fact line “A” is obviously longer. Since I made this image myself, I can assure you that line “A” is an exact copy of line “B” – they are the same size. This optical illusion, while simple, illustrates how we should not automatically accept what our intuition tells us. Go ahead, take out a scale and measure – verify!

Of course we cannot go through life questioning everything we see and do; that would drive us crazy and perhaps be dangerous. But for the significant decisions and actions we take, it may well be helpful to step back from following through on our “gut feel” and verify our assumptions. The more I learn about how the human mind stores and processes information the more I see why we must question our intuition. The “truths” we hold about the world and how it works, the stereotypes we have of people (customers, clients, markets, etc.) are fraught with misinformation and inaccuracies.

Here are several questions I like to use to help me with this process:

  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What assumptions must be correct for this decision to be successful?
  • How difficult is it to verify the assumptions?
  • Is the risk of failure worth the verification efforts?

Even if, for some reason, I elect to not make the effort to verify I have at least made myself somewhat aware of the assumptions and stereotypes I am using and that can only be a good thing.

As leaders, I believe we need to demonstrate how we are willing to question our own beliefs, assumptions, stereotypes and “truths.” We also have to make sure our teams know how to decide which decisions are important enough to put in significant effort to question and verify – that takes clarity of organizational vision and values.

How do you challenge your teams to question assumptions and verify data? Are they all indulging in “group think?” Will they be able to spot “big bang disruptions”? Do they know which of their assumptions must be true for the project, product, and/or service to be successful?