Intuitive thinking

I’ve often thought that the ideal Product Manager is an intuitively thinking individual, because that type of thinking enables forward looking predictions, it allows to take a lot of additional, often hard to measure data into consideration. However, Product Managers are quite commonly faced with the fact that other stakeholders’ are of a different type. More data centric, more concrete. So what is intuition, and how can it be explained to people who have little knowledge or experience in intuitive thinking…

Wikipedia, in the article about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, describes it as follows:

“[Individuals] who prefer intuition tend to trust information that is more abstract or theoretical, that can be associated with other information (either remembered or discovered by seeking a wider context or pattern). They may be more interested in future possibilities. For them, the meaning is in the underlying theory and principles which are manifested in the data.”
Wikipedia – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Contrarily, people who prefer sensing are described in that same article as individuals who prefer to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete. For them, the meaning is in the data.

How to bridge that gap?

Well, very obviously it is a real gift if key stakeholders in the process, decision makers, executive management either are intuitive individuals, or can relate to it. This often happens when positive experience had been made in the past. Predictions of intuitive product managers have become true. Even if the suggested actions had not been approved, changes in the market, the competitive landscape, have proven that the intuitive person was correct in all the assumptions made. However, many times a product manager doesn’t get the time to build a relationship over many years. Or other people are unable to remember what was predicted, and then happened. Or the intuitive product manager simply has given up asking for things he/she would never get anyhow.

How does intuition work? Well, for me it’s a miracle, even though I am intuitive. If I had to describe it, I’d say my brain is a black box. With lots of silence in it. Then, when I get into a situation and I’m seeking for clarity, guidance, for the future, I start to consume information. I talk to people. But what’s important – I have absolutely no plan why I’m asking the questions I’m asking. I have no idea why I choose to read an article but not another. That whole process is based on something, but that something lies deep in the dark inside my brain. After a while I kinda start feeling like there is a complete picture. Still hidden in the brain, still in the dark. I can’t say how it will look like once complete, but I do get “the feeling” it’s there. Like if you see a sharp object from a distance, but through a wall of fog. I know that, once it gets closer, it will be all clear and obvious. But if somebody, during that process, asks me how far I am – all I can say is that I guess it’s becoming clear, but what I see is fog only. But then things become clear, and the closer it gets, the more information I consume, the more obvious things become. And finally, what I find in my brain is something sharp, shiny, clear – just so very obvious. That, to me, is the process of getting clarity the intuitive way.

To people who prefer data, this is absolutely scary. Often times, when people ask me half-way through a project, how things are going, an honest answer would just be “Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.” (Yoda in response to Luke, Star Wars Episode V., by the way). But, no mistake, that’s not the answer that will give a non-intuitive person confidence. The same is true for general product management tasks like prioritizing features. How can you explain, that a specific feature would be the killer thing, the one that sets you apart from the competition – if there is no data supporting it. And here’s the dilemma: There is no data available! We’re talking about future. Sure, a responsible product manager looks at all available data, he/she consumes a lot of data, maybe more about the subject than anybody else. But there’s no way, for an intuitive person, to map a specific set of data to a prediction made about the future. Well, in reality you just can’t map data to future (unless you’re Yoda, but even then, remember “alway in motion the future is”).

The important aspect is a deep understanding, and maybe even more important as a prerequisite, appreciation of the various types of thinking. Understanding the other person is key. And it’s hard work. What this means is that you have to step outside of your comfort zone. It is a time-consuming and tedious task to dig into all the information available. Thinking about what bits of information are relevant to data centric people. Trying to understand what they need to support a decision. Always remember, for an intuitive person things are just so plain simple and clear. But they way to make it transparent, to explain it at a level that makes all stakeholders feel comfortable is a tremendous effort – yet one that can’t be ignored.

Once understood, this process becomes part of the job. You will get used to it to some level. At least you will be experienced in noticing the comfort level of non-intuitive people, and you understand that – if it’s below a given threshold – you have to go back and dig even deeper. Prepare more data. Outline more precisely and carefully how you arrived at a conclusion.

And maybe, and that’s the real beauty of it, and where non-intuitive people have a real strengths – you may stumble upon a fact, a piece of data that – simply spoken – invalidates all your feelings, assumptions, your ability to just see things. At the end of the day, and that’s my credo, both types are critically important, relevant and needed. Or, as Albert Einstein once put it: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”. I’m saying we need both. And we need to honor both. From there, bridging the gap will be possible, it’s just a matter of applying the right tools, the right language, the required sensitivity.