Career Advice

How To Build Intuition Into Your Engineering Decision Making
Christian Knutson posted on November 05, 2015 |

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” - Albert Einstein

As engineers we are naturally accustomed to using analysis and examination to uncover root causes and solve problems.  These are both exceptional cognitive skills to have and definitely needed for our critical thinking and decision-making activities.  However, there’s one additional cognitive skill that we mustn’t leave undeveloped: our intuition.

Our intuition is at play constantly and it helps us to navigate through our engineering work and our life.  In fact, it can play a key role in helping us to achieve our goals, solve complex problems, and find solutions to difficult situations.  However, not many people are comfortable with letting intuition guide their decision-making and typically, engineers are even less comfortable relying on what many will look down on as “gut feel”.

This is unfortunate because, when we discount our gut feel in arriving at a solution, more often than not, we’re leaving capability on the table.

Bringing intuition into our problem solving and decision-making process requires two elements: practice and the creation of self-confidence.  Although each of us uses intuition constantly, very few people spend time actively cultivating the skill.  

Using Intuition As a Decision-Making Force Multiplier

Whether you call it a “gut feel” or a “hunch”, intuition plays a larger role in accomplishing work than you might give it credit.  It provides insight into issues and problems instinctively, like an inner knowing that taps our wisdom without deliberate thought and drawn-out analyses.  Because of the elusiveness of intuition, it’s hard to teach or give a paint-by-numbers approach to developing or strengthening it.  This said, each of us has intuition. To succeed by using it, is simply a matter of tapping into whatever amount we have, then amplifying it.

Building Confidence in Your Gut Feel.  Relying on intuition can be risky if you lack confidence or haven’t used it as a decision-making enhancement in the past.  Through practice, however, you can sync with your subconscious mind and use your intuition continuously to solve problems and issues.  

To begin with, you must realize that your intuition is only going to be reliable in the areas where you have a wealth of knowledge, or in the areas close to it.  For example, if a person has no background or knowledge in structural engineering, they can’t be expected to intuitively pick-up on the way a new design should unfold, or flaws in a design they are reviewing.   Your intuition will also come to use in the universal arena in which everyone operates, such as inter-personal relationships, communications, and our environment.

Benefits of Wielding Your Intuition.  The benefits from intuition include strengthening one’s self-confidence in making decisions and risk-assessments quicker.  These are key attributes for anyone to cultivate, regardless if one is undertaking new challenges in life and career or maintaining their status quo.  With increased intuition, you gain an increased ability to cut to the crux of issues and make on-target decisions faster, without a lot of drama.  

You see opportunity and you act.  You don’t use a cumbersome, deliberate planning process on every decision you make.  Instead, you quickly pick-up on relevant facts, relationships, details and consequences to make a 70% solution.  In most cases, this is good enough.  

Repeatedly I see engineers striving to collect information to eliminate all risk or answer all possible questions.  We know that in any engineering endeavor we cannot eliminate 100% of risk.  Nor can we achieve decision with a 100% guarantee that it’s correct.  As you build confidence in your ability to leverage your intuitive thought, you will be able to arrive at the balance between risk and action much faster.   Remember:  the enemy of success is perfection.  

You can make quick decisions in chaotic environments.  Whether in war or business a quick decision often times seals success.  The mind has the capability to process an infinite amount of detail quickly, but it’s all in the subconscious.  Not only does it process new input, it mixes it with memories, knowledge, and understanding already stored inside to kick-out an immediate read of a situation.

I’ve relied on this skill numerous times throughout my career and know it works.  There’s no other explanation for how I was able to solve some of the problems I was faced with during my military deployments.  

As you increase trust in your intuition for delivering on-target decisions quickly, you will increase the value you provide to everyone around you, as well as the organization in which you work or support. If you don’t fully trust your intuition, then start with the small stuff on which you can afford a mistake.  If your gut-call is wrong, analyze why and then notice if it happens again on the next trial run.  Eventually you’ll be in-tune with your subconscious and you can expand using your intuition to solve larger issues.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership coach and strategy consultant who happens to be a Professional Engineer and Certified Project Manager. He is co-founder of The Engineering Career Coach, a company dedicated to providing engineers and engineering companies core skills, leadership, lifestyle design education enabling them to fulfill their vision.  He’s also a retired field grade U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer with more than two decades of active duty service leading engineering teams and organization around the globe. 

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