The Value of Professional Intuition in Project Management

Filed under Grab Bag | Posted by PMStudent

Should we trust our intuition? Find out in this guest post?by Shim Marom

Common wisdom will tell you that Intuition is an internal perception of reality that is not directly associated with any reasoning process. If you are a project manager early in your career you will most likely seek guidance and mentoring from more experienced project managers. And as you observe their conduct there is a good chance that along the way, when inquiring about this decision or another, you will get a response suggesting that their decision is based on gut-feel, i.e. their intuition.

There is a powerful body of evidence suggesting that some people are ?gifted? with consistently accurate intuition that allows them to make successful decisions and predictions about the possible outcome, the result of their action. We all know some ?how-to? books, written by professionals, primarily in areas of finance and investments, advising on the steps they have taken in genuinely uncertain times, resulting in out of the ordinary success.

By its very nature, invoking intuition is a product of dealing with situations of uncertainty, or more specifically in the way we react to a possible risk (and opportunity). It is our immediate response to a question that results in an action (or deliberately refraining from one).

In a project environment, intuition can and does play a role in planning activities. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the ones we mostly rely on to provide planning estimates. We rely on SMEs in varying circumstances; we need their advice to forecast project activities for which they have direct past experience; we also ask for their advice to forecast project activities for which they do not have direct experience but are believed to be close enough to a point where their gut-feel and intuition could provide a good-enough estimate.

Makes sense, doesn?t it?

Well, actually, that depends.

Daniel Kahneman discusses the topic of intuition in his recent book titled ?Thinking, Fast and Slow?. He brings examples for both supporting and rejecting the validity and accuracy of intuition, as a decision making tool. He concludes that intuition is only valid when it is associated with a skill. And to acquire that skill two conditions must exist:

  1. An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable, and
  2. An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

When a situation is subject to a statistical regularity then the intuition can be said to be based on a skill. So, for instance, if a developer is asked for the estimated effort for completing a piece of work, the estimate provided should be examined against the above criteria:

  1. Is the planned development sufficiently similar to work done in the past and, if so,
  2. How often was this work carried out?

If either one of these parameters is unsatisfactorily answered the chances of the intuitive estimate hitting the mark are low, to say the least.

If you are a project manager early in your career trusting your gut-feel could be successful and propel your professional aspirations into new heights, but only if you are lucky. For most people, trusting their intuition could be a risky proposition, unless that intuition is backed by the conditions outlined above. Make sure you back your professional decisions and directions with the skill and experience necessary for increased chances of success and use your intuition as a backup mechanism only ? not the prime tool for making managerial decisions.

Shim Marom (@shim_marom) is a project manager who lives, writes, speaks and works in Melbourne, Australia. Shim is the owner of, a blog dedicated to project management while incorporating the latest in science and psychology to better understand and explain people and organizational behavior and attitudes.