My New Year’s resolution is the same every year

Guest contribution by | 01.01.2020 | Project management | 0 comments

Also in 2020 I want more intellect and less intuition and instinct in my perception, my decisions and my actions. This is not at all in vogue, because intuition and anti-scientificism are fashionable at this time. It is true that many people refer to science when it confirms their own position. Otherwise, STEM fields are increasingly coming under criticism from educators. Students do not like them anyway. But that has other reasons.

The aversion to theory and reflexion

The publisher Nicholas Mailänder wrote many years ago:

“Looking closely, analysing precisely and conveying a subject appropriately in language does not necessarily correspond to the collective needs of our epoch.”

In fact, these are three skills that would be more than helpful in practice, especially in projects, but which unfortunately are no longer trendy at all. The Re:publica, an annual conference on the digital society, had the motto “tl;dr” in 2019, which is Internet slang and means “too long, didn’t read”. The Re:publica wanted to point out that it is sometimes worthwhile to read long texts carefully and reflect on their content.

As far as precise analysis is concerned, the psychologist W. B. Rouse already said in 1981:

“People, when they have the choice, prefer to behave like contextual pattern recognition rather than trying to extrapolate or optimise.”

Put simply, this means that people prefer to be guided by some kind of pattern intuitively, rather than analysing and calculating.

And with regard to linguistic mediation, the decline in the corresponding ability is obvious. Sometimes I don’t even understand a short tweet anymore because conjunctions get mixed up and commas are suppressed. Whoever draws attention to that, at best reaps a shitstorm.

I know that thinking and analysing is despicable to many, and Dr. Dr. Sheldon Cooper was actually an asshole, at least in the first season. Still, the show is the most successful ever, which means nerds do have a certain appeal. Psychologists Jens Rasmussen and James Reason studied human error in the 1980s and found that human behavior takes place on three levels:

  • The lowest level, which they called “skill-based,” is largely instinct-driven and contains automatisms.
  • The middle level, which they called “rule-based”, is most likely the seat of intuition.
  • Finally, the highest “knowledge-based” level is the seat of reason and thought.

Most of what we perceive and do takes place completely unconsciously on the lowest level.

Intuition is also only human

If something requires our attention, the rule-based level is claimed. It always finds a solution. And if it’s a wrong rule, there are powerful cognitive and affective forces that come together to make the problem solver believe that he should accept inappropriate or incomplete solutions as satisfactory at this point. Escalating to the knowledge-based level therefore requires the kind of overcoming and discipline that is at the very core of my respective New Year’s resolutions, because thinking is so energy-intensive and slow that the organism tries to prevent the use of this apparatus as far as possible.

Even Prof. Peter Kruse advises against the “rational penetration” of a problem and claims that the intuitive approach is more successful. The fact that we use the knowledge-based level so rarely was a protective mechanism necessary for survival, which we have inherited from nature. Today, unfortunately, it interferes quite massively.

I have learned from the work of Reason and Rasmussen that intuition is always more powerful than the mind. I don’t need to take extra care of my intuition and train it, for example by meditation. The intuition is always in the driver’s seat.

Klaus Mainzer writes in his book “Calculating the world – From the world formula to Big Data” (“Die Berechnung der Welt – Von der Weltformel zu Big Data” (C.H. Beck Verlag, 2014)): 

“Some psychologists praise intuition as a special insight of a higher kind, which cannot be explained “mechanically”. But where should these insights come from? … They could come from a previous learning history of our species (i.e. from our ancestors, PA) or from previous individual experiences. These experiences, in turn, were recorded in patterns of behaviour and thought, and thus ultimately also as algorithms. … Trusting that they are therefore already the best solution for an upcoming problem should make us suspicious of our own intuition. … Intuition is by no means an excellent instance of higher insights.”

This coincides with Daniel Kahneman’s opinion, which he expresses in his bestseller “Fast thinking, slow thinking” (Siedler Verlag, 2012).

Improvement for the worse instead of problem solving

The big problems that need to be solved I already mentioned in my German blog  anchor.ch in 2008:

  • Global warming,
  • Population growth,
  • Differences between geostrategic blocks,
  • Terrorism,
  • Migration,
  • Nationalism,
  • Populism and
  • Chauvinism etc.

are increasing exponentially, placing societies in an unstable state in which proposals and counter-proposals compete. It is now a matter of developing our social and technical facilities in a knowledge-based and interdisciplinary way, of understanding connections and dependencies and of learning to think in models. It is not primarily our actions that we need to change, but our thought processes.

Problem solutions always produce side effects. One of Peter Senge’s ten systemic archetypes – depending on the type of counting – is originally called “Fixes that Fail”. I translate this with “Improvement of the situation”. A problem solution should reduce or completely solve the problem that has appeared. The bigger the problem, the greater the efforts to solve it. But every solution approach has positive and negative effects. The solution therefore produces side effects and the more, the greater the efforts to solve the problem. The side effects have a strengthening effect on the problem, so that after an initial but temporary improvement a relapse occurs, which brings the original problem to a higher level than it was before. So it would have been better not to have done anything.

If you do not know what you are causing with your actions, it would be better to have done nothing. Of course, I can’t think about everything I do – writing this article, brushing my teeth, washing dishes, repairing my bike – thinking about the side effects that my actions might cause. Mani Matter caused a world war with a cigarette in his song about matches. But in projects, especially in IT projects and in approaching the really, really big problems, I would like to put intellect, reason and reflexion before intuition!

Peter Addor
Peter Addor
Peter Addor is a mathematician, systems thinker, Internet pioneer, author and photographer. His company "Anchor Management Consulting AG", which he ran from 1995 to 2014, offered project support, especially in computer science and logistics. Peter Addor retired in 2016 and is now living in Italy and Sri Lanka.

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