The “i” Word

Just a pile of junk?

In a job interview a while back I mentioned the one word you don’t want to say in a job interview (especially when the interviewer is an ex-Googler): “intuition”. Interviewers want to hear about your analytical and well-reasoned thinking skills, not about nebulous concepts like intuition. The interview was the last in a series of eight, and was supposed to seal the deal.

The question in question was about my approach to product management, and more specifically, how I make decisions on tough issues with conflicting requirements. I rambled about “looking carefully at the data”, “analyzing customer input”, “evaluating feature profitability” and other serious sounding sound bites, and then said that at the end of the day after thoroughly evaluating all the inputs I make a decision based on my intuition. The interviewer paused and repeated: “intuition?” at that moment I knew that job opportunity was lost.

So, was mentioning “intuition” a mistake? yes. Does intuition have a place in the workplace? absolutely; especially if you accept the following definition, attributed to Abella Arthur: “Intuition is a combination of historical (empirical) data, deep and heightened observation and an ability to cut through the thickness of surface reality. Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks. Intuition is a knowing, a sensing that is beyond the conscious understanding – a gut feeling. Intuition is not pseudo-science.”

Every decision we make is based at least in part on our intuition or “gut feeling”. People who lack the ability to intuit tend to get stuck when faced with reams of data. Analysis Paralysis is one of the worst enemies of effective execution. I’m not talking about the obvious cases, where data analysis leads to a clear decision. I’m talking about cases where 1) a decision has to be made, and 2) the data does not seem to point you at any direction. This is where people who can intuit shine. At a startup environment, this is particularly important; if you can’t act on your gut feeling, you can easily analyze yourself out of existence.

So what is the correct answer to that interview question? I’m still not sure. If an interviewer refuses to accept the canned answers and insists on digging deeper, I’m probably going to describe some convoluted thought process based on past experience, innate reasoning, and deep assimilation of analyzed data. Some people will call this intuition, but you didn’t hear it from me.

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