Trust the data or trust your gut?
A view from Sue Unerman

Trust the data or trust your gut?

In my experience of management, the more senior alpha males become in an agency, the more they are attracted to making decisions based on gut instinct.

It is one of the gender differences that I am prepared to generalise about as it is apparent to me at that level. Men like gut instincts and snap decisions. The notion that any decision is better than no decision floats around the executive suite. However, as the blogger Martin Zwilling writes, a good decision is of course better than any decision.

The reaction to gut instincts may depend on your personal experience as well as your gender. How many gut decisions have you seen go wrong and how many go right, for example? Perhaps the signifier of a successful leader is that he or she can tell when and how to use data or evidence and when to make a gut call, particularly when presented with very good cases on both sides of the argument.

The writer, musician and all-round genius Brian Eno challenges the very notion of a gut-instinct decision.

His challenge is based on a question that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used to pose to his students. You can try to answer it yourself. You have a ribbon that you want to tie around the Earth. You've tied it a bit too loosely, however – it is a metre too long. The question is this: if you could distribute the resulting slack – the extra metre – evenly around the planet so that the ribbon hovered just above the surface, how far above the surface would it be?

I was surprisingly close to the correct answer when I guessed, but I do have some of the relevant experience of the best guessers.

Most people's intuition lead them to an answer in the region of a minute fraction of a millimetre. The actual answer is 16 centimetres. It turns out that only two sorts of people intuitively get close to the answer: mathematicians and dress-makers (I used to design and make my own clothes as a teenager).

Eno concludes, among other things, that this indicates that gut-instinct decisions are not "quasi-mystical voices from outside ourselves speaking through us, but a sort of quick and dirty processing of our prior experiences, which is why dress-makers get it when the rest of us don't".

The truth is that gut-instinct decisions are an excellent idea if you have experience to base them on and a terrible idea if you don't. So the key is to distinguish between the two each time. How do you do this? I would base that on evidence and data, not gut instinct – but I would, wouldn't I?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom