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A Playbook for Intuition

9/12/2012 --

Professor Ray Reilly teaches upcoming executives how to make the process of asking questions, thinking, and making a decision automatic.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Decision by intuition might sound like a bad thing, but there are different types of intuition. There's the gut feeling, and there's the kind of intuition driven by learning a process and applying that to experience. It's the latter type that interests Ray Reilly, professor of business administration. In the Ross Executive Education program Business Acumen for High-Potential Executives, Reilly shows that experience alone isn't enough. It has to be shaped by a framework that becomes automatic over time. This allows executives to learn how to think, how to ask the right questions, how to consider the answers and come to an informed decision. What starts as a formal process simply becomes a way of doing business over time, allowing someone to become a first-rate problem solver. Reilly brings to bear his years of experience working with both students and CEO as faculty director of this course.

How do you develop an intuition but still base it on facts and a logical process? How do we take it past the gut feeling?

Reilly: When I talk about intuition, it's the kind that derives from your experience. There are two things you need to think about. Part one is to have a framework in which you understand how things work. Part two is to have a thought process you can use in a situation where you have to consider possibilities and figure out what to do.

Can you give an example?

Reilly: I talk to a lot of CEOs in my work and when I visit with them I have a framework in mind. It helps me make sure the questions that I ask have a logic that leads me to understand how the business works. In the Business Acumen program, I show the class a set of questions I ask when I'm talking to a CEO about their business. The CEO doesn't know I'm using a formal framework, but when we're done, a typical comment is, 'Wow! You really understand our business.' What he is saying is that I asked the right questions. How do I know which questions to ask? I have a framework that is guiding these questions. I understand the general concept of what a business is, and the CEO fills in the details. After an hour or so, I have a pretty good understanding of the business.

So how do you use that information to come to a decision?

Reilly: It's one thing to have a set of questions and ask what's going on. It's another to look at a situation and figure out a better solution. For that, you need a thought process that will take you through the details of what exists, what might be wrong, and find some options on how to make it right. In the program I show the students a process for thinking through the options. This process helps them go from complexity to clarity, and that's the essence of Business Acumen. I supply them with a framework, and other faculty members come in and explain the pieces of it. I then show them how the pieces fit together.

How do you make it hit home, or give this concept some immediacy, for people in the program?

Reilly: These are people with 10-12 years of experience who have been tapped as tomorrow's leaders. Most of them are running departments or divisions of their companies. They have talent. What they don't necessarily have is an ingrained process to understand the business and a way of thinking about change. We ask them to apply what they've learned to their own firms. At the end of the program I tell them, 'You are now charged with improving the business model for your firm.' We go through the thought process, we critique it. We repeat it. Sometimes there's that 'aha' moment where somebody gets it and wonders why they've been thinking about the business in another way. When a problem arises, you can use the process to assess the situation and come to an informed decision. Over time it becomes automatic, and that's what we're trying to do. That's what intuition is. What you have done is develop this unbelievable capability for investigation and problem-solving. It's intuition based on a process.

What's the challenge in getting to the point where this thinking is automatic?

Reilly: There are people who want to jump right to the decision-making without informed analysis or a thought process. People think you can get there without training or without having structured experiences. I think they are wrong. You need the structure, it needs to be modified by experience, and over time it leads to a way of thinking that will be valid. People learn from experience because they fit the experience into a valid structure.

It's like athletes in team sports who study a game plan from their coaches. They begin with a framework, get experience in the field, learn what works, what doesn't, and adjust to what their opponents do. After a while, it becomes automatic and the athlete doesn't even have to think about game plan. They become capable of doing not just what's in the plan, but also become better at dealing with things not in it. You can't anticipate everything. That's what we're talking about in this program.

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,