Your “gut” and “intuition” are not enough…today

When I wrote my first post titled “ Do you know what you don’t know” I was brought back to a time when I was in my mid twenties serving a rapidly growing small company. I was a young manager and full of “piss and vinegar” eager to kick ass and take names. Our entire team was the same age give or take 5 years of age. We were growing rapidly and then hit a plateau . None of us had experienced this before so we hired a coach. One of the coaches’ reconditions was to bring in someone with more experience and a few gray hairs to balance the leadership team. At the time we hired Larry we were making decisions like we always did, but they were not working,and not having the desired impact. We hired Larry with his over 25 years experience and immediately we could feel his experience balance our decisions and quickly we were back on our rapid growth path.

I was so impressed with his calm and knowledgeable approach that I took him to lunch to figure out his secret. So over a great lunch discussing his past business experiences I asked the question burning inside me; “ Larry, how can I get what you have? This ability to see situations, analyze potential strategies in this different way?” I will never forget his answer ; “ Mark, you don’t know what you don’t know, and time and experience is the only way to get what you are looking for.” At that time I was frustrated by that answer. Now that I am the guy in my late forty’s with graying hair I finally understand what Larry was teaching me. Their is no better teacher than time. The danger comes in when all we rely on is our training and experience.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling book Blink he talks about what Larry had back then. Was it a gut instinct, business intuition, or something else? In the book blink as one of the comments from my first post points out , over time , subconsciously we acquire information and this the author points out helps us make good decisions. Like other strengths however I believe relying on this alone can be a detrimental weakness. What Larry taught us was to take current market information and use the intuition to write strategies that result in explosive sales growth.

Intuition, “gut instinctcolumn-murketing2LG_0” if you will , is but one component of making good decisions.Your instinct and intuition are a culmination of your life experiences, training and education which ultimately helps you know what you know.It  also acts as a filter for what you see and experience in the future.

The problem occurs when you allow this inner voice to be your only decision making tool. Why? The biggest issue is your information is dated. The moment you experience something, it becomes the past. The unique set of circumstances that you experienced will never be exactly the same again. So how can we rely so much on what got us through the last challenge will get us through this one? The big risk is , if taken too far your team will no longer believe in you as the leader and label your leadership as “clueless” in their minds. Once this occurs you are destined for a downward EBITDA spiral . So how do we know if we are sounding clueless to our team? Guy Kawasaki wrote a brilliant blog titled How to tell if your CEO is clueless that  I recommend everyone read.

So are leaders clueless or just arrogant, both? The definition of arrogance is : an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. Executives who rely on their gut instinct, their personal intuition alone are arrogant in today’s economy.

Today we face conditions unlike any we have ever experienced. Today is not like the great depression, the dot com bust, or the last time the oil fields were burning in Iraq. Today we see a toxic economic cocktail of ;housing declines and foreclosures, financial institutions in peril, oil prices climbing, a new President, economic advisors ( experts) grasping at straws, unemployment reaching 15 year lows…all shaken not stirred by access to  instant information causing huge swings in the stock market and ultimately consumer confidence.So I thought it would be interesting to ask CEO’s how they solve problems today.

When I surveyed CEO’s recently I asked a simple question; “where do you turn when faced with a problem in your business?” At first the answers were all over the board. However three answers bubbled to the top;

1. my network (I phone a friend)

2. my board, my business advisors

3. I get my team together and we figure it out

My concern with all of theses answers implies those you are turning to are closer to the conditions of the market of today than you are ( or have a bigger or smarter “gut”). I have to admit when I was faced with a challenge with a company I was helping in 2002 the first thing I did was reach out to my network, and that alone was wrong. Today requires critical thinking that includes a strong deep connection and understanding of to your  market, it’s needs, and it’s buyers coupled with instinct and experience to weather this storm. So what should we do , as we lead our organizations ?

Below are six steps I recommend;

1. quantify “what is” (without judgments attached)

2. build an intimate knowledge of your market and particularly its problems

3 understand your team, strengths, weaknesses, and insure you have a team with skills to solve the market problems you discover

4. look for what is working (and find out why)

5. humble yourself ( yes you heard me right) authentically  admit what you do not know, and seek information

6. as Steven Covey said “sharpen the saw” we must invest in self improvement,the book  what got you here won’t get you there does a great job of explaining this


Today is not like yesterday, and tomorrow will not be like today. As leaders we must constantly balance our intuition with new market data and critical problem solving skills to be more agile to come out ahead in today’s market.

Where do you turn when you face a business challenge?

How’s that working for you today?

Image from Fast Company article; Going for the gut

31 thoughts on “Your “gut” and “intuition” are not enough…today

  1. Good information Mark and good reading. I am in the construction industry and these are very trying times for all in our field. We make and install architectural stone products and I have always felt that advertising was the way to get more business. But I am finding that networking is becoming more prevalent. Most people know someone in the trade and once they trust them they are very loyal to them. I feel like the key for me is to penetrate that circle of loyalty. Not easy to do. We have a good product at a good price, and it is manufactured locally, so we are very flexible and customer friendly. I am trying to emphasize these points more to consumers – buy locally to help the local economy and deal factory direct. What are your thoughts on this?

    • markallenroberts says:

      Thanks Mike,
      You are touching upon a key point, in difficult times focus on what is working.
      You have identified a key point most business owners fail to measure and that is where the business is coming from. Far too many owners and presidents of companies I am speaking with have that deer in the headlights look in their eyes. Why? As one commented to me recently…” the sales just came in, I never really knew why or where, they just came in …and not everything stopped and I don’t know what to do”
      When business is booming it takes a strong discipline to truly understand what drives your business.

      My guess is a number of others influence the consumers purchase, and that is the loyalty network you need to influence better than your competition. Who are these influencers? The quickest way to find out is ask the last 10 consumers who influenced their decision to choose your company. I know that when our neighborhood started adding stone to our homes, the HOA, and painters were leading influencers. In addition neighbors would approach neighbors about cost, the laborers who installed it and the process to buy the stone. Not one neighbor was given tools or the incentive to tell other neighbors….interesting.

      Please call the last 10 orders you had and understand the buying process. Another thing I would watch out for is if the consumer is buying the service company for the installation, your brand of stone, both? What is your organizations’ distinctive competence? What do you do better than all your competitors? Color match flexibility? Free delivery for orders of $X or more? The most realistic looking stone? You use dies that are not impacted by the UV rays of the sun? Whatever it is, find it, and tell your potential customers, those currently evaluating you as a vendor, and your past customers as well as influencers.

      After you hear from 10 past customers, I would like to hear what your customers told you.

      Thanks again,


  2. Your post is timely for small business owners who are currently struggling daily with how to maintain historical sales levels that have declined 30% – 50% or more as a consequence of the current economic crisis.

    Quantifying “what is” is a pretty straight forward endeavor. Learning from what has transpired in the market place since the economic downturn began in December 2007 is made easy because of the sheer volume of articles, news reports, etc. on the subject.

    Quantifying “what will be” is a much more daunting task… and one that will determine if a small business survives or fails. As you have correctly pointed out, we are most definitely in uncharted territory. The general consensus among economists is that we have not hit “bottom” and recovery may be years away. Small business owners driven to survive until the recovery begins have no choice but to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if something less dire emerges.

    Building an intimate knowledge of a small business’s market and, particularly, its problems can be accomplished using traditonal marketing practices. Across the board, market research about our commercial and residential customers reveals that that customers who don’t have discretionary funds obviously are not spending. The challenging dilema we face is how to convince our more affluent customers who continue to have discretionary funds to spend money for our services. Across the board, doctors, business executives, and other affluent customers currently have a “deer in the headlights” mentality and have essentially slashed spending literally scared about the possibility of losing their wealth. We do not know how to help them solve this problem. Until this problem of fear can be overcome, these affluent customers will largely not allow us to help them solve less pressing problems typically addressed through a conventional sales and marketing campaign.

    Your point 4 – Look for what is working (and find out why) is critical to the survival of small businesses everywhere. There is a real need for internet forums to be created for small buisness owners to share their current experiences regarding what is and what is not working.

    • markallenroberts says:

      Thank you for your well thought out comments Doug,
      I have always heard when we have fear we lack creativity.
      In this challenging time is more imperative you clearly state the problem your product or service solves. Seek the root of what you do, connect to it, and seek potential customers who have the problem you can solve.

      Another exercise that will provide insights would be contacting your current customers. Ask why they stay with you. Chances are you will learn something valuable to your buyers that you may not be recognizing nor promoting.

      My goal is this blog is it will create a venue for real practical advice and entrepreneurs like you adding comments to help others.
      Thanks again.


  3. Marlene says:

    Thanks for your insights Mark. I enjoy your writing style and appreciate the relevance of business/marketing tips to human relations in general. As an educator working primarily with adults motivation and leadership are key facets of engaging students and promoting learning.

    • markallenroberts says:

      Thank you! Please let me know the struggles your business may have and I will provide content or direct you to thought leaders who can.

  4. Mark, in my article “10 Ways to Identify an Impending Product Launch Disaster” I specifically call out launches that are based on hunches rather than market evidence. If your risk of failure is very low, hunches might be OK. But for most of us in the business world the risk of failure is simply too high to rely on hunches and intuition alone.

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