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Data & Intuition

You may have just read my TAG partner Carl’s article, which begins by critiquing being data-driven, calling it a crutch that can restrict thinking and possibilities. Kind of ironic for a market research professional! In contrast, over my many years of market research, I have heard various rationales, excuses, or considerations for executives NOT using data for decision making, including the (perceived) long time and high expense to conduct studies to gather needed data, that it will reveal nothing new, that the information revealed was already known, that the results (if not liked) are flawed, and data will be obsolete as soon as the research is completed, etc. The people making these pronouncements then proceed to justify not gathering or using data by invoking their go-to management method of “decision by gut” as more reliable, cost and time-efficient, and more effective than data.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review 1 article, today’s most successful organizations leverage data when making high-impact business decisions. In fact, a recent survey of more than 1,000 senior executives revealed that data-driven organizations are three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision-making compared to those that use data less.  

The article continues that intuition is often seen as the opposite of reason. And when we cast things in this binary way, we often define intuition as a yardstick that has no place in the age of science and data.

However, recent research from Laura Huang, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, reveals that gut feelings can be useful, especially in highly uncertain circumstances where further data gathering won’t sway the decision maker one way or the other.

At its best, intuition is a powerful form of pattern recognition—something human brains are wired to do. When pattern recognition and trusting one’s gut are not managed well, this may lead to bias and incomplete or overly simplistic thinking. Both of these outcomes are detrimental to making sound decisions.

So, what Carl is really saying is that in terms of data and intuition, in today’s highly dynamic and complex business world, better results happen when decision-makers combine the best of each.



We live in a society inundated with data – billions and billions of it! All that information gives us access to much of what we want to know. However, much of the available data is not necessarily specific to a needed question. It may be low quality, lacking context, or too voluminous to quantify and interpret into real insights and business results.

However, relying on intuition can help us navigate through the data fog more quickly and move forward. According to Huang’s research, this is when gut feelings/intuition can lead to better decisions:

Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, works with top executives at large German firms. He finds that when they’re “buried under data,” the numbers don’t tell them what to do. Intuition, he says, “is a form of unconscious intelligence that is as needed as conscious intelligence.”

Decision makers often can get “data tunnel vision” when looking at their numbers for a long time, making analysis difficult. It’s important to maintain objectivity by gathering data from past activities, other industries, or relevant research to compare and develop insights.

As organizations use data to gain advantage, there’s a growing need for people across all levels and functions to become or work alongside data experts to combine knowledge sets. This way, intuition and data can “talk” to each other.

However, a conflict between data and intuition can be a frustrating experience; which one should you trust? Traditionally, we’ve been taught to push through these uncomfortable feelings to make a quick decision and move on. However, we can learn something by paying attention to these emotions and creating space between our feelings and our actions. By analyzing the data and our intuition, we can often arrive at a clearer understanding of the best course of action. This allows us to make more informed decisions considering both the hard facts and the intangible factors at play.


When to Use Data to Drive Decisions

Data-driven decision-making (DDDM) is the practice of basing decisions on the analysis of data rather than purely on intuition. These are some of the advantages:

  • Objectivity: Data (should) provide an unbiased foundation for decisions, removing personal biases that can cloud judgment.

  • Predictive Power: With the help of machine learning and statistical models, data can reveal trends and forecast outcomes, enabling proactive decision-making.

  • Measurability: Decisions based on data can be measured and analyzed for effectiveness, allowing for continuous improvement.


When to Use Intuition in Decision-Making

Intuition is the ability to understand something instinctively without needing conscious reasoning. The “gut feeling” often guides leaders to make split-second decisions. Intuition is valuable because:

  • Speed: In situations where time is of the essence, intuition allows for quick decisions without extensive data analysis.

  • Experience: Intuitive decisions are often rooted in deep-seated knowledge and expertise that may not be readily quantifiable.

  • Innovation: Breakthrough ideas often come from intuitive leaps that defy conventional data patterns.

Both data and intuition need to be considered for successful decision-making. From there, finding the right balance between these two factors is important. Here are some strategies to achieve this harmony:

  • Complement Data with Intuition: Use data to inform your intuition. Let the insights from data analysis guide your gut feelings.

  • Know When to Rely on Each: Recognize situations where data is paramount, such as financial forecasting. Conversely, trust your intuition when data is scarce, or innovation is the goal.

  • Foster a Data-Informed Culture: Encourage a culture where data is respected but not the sole decision-maker. Empower employees to use data as a tool rather than a crutch.


The TAG Approach

While data offers clarity and predictability, intuition provides the human touch that can lead to groundbreaking innovations. The organizations that will thrive are those that understand how to leverage the strengths of both, making decisions that are not only smart but also wise.

At TAG, we are unique in offering client services in a seamless process that marries research and strategy, that is, facts and human insight based on the data. Our approach offers clients a singular competitive advantage by researching and strategizing questions and challenges from these various angles for more effective results. Please contact us to learn how our approach can work for you and your organization.



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