Project Management Institute

Malcolm Gladwell on intuition


A Q&A with the author, who describes how to develop and take advantage of gut feelings in your work.

TIME MAGAZINE DESCRIBED Malcolm Gladwell as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for his outside-the-box interpretations of social science research. The author of bestsellers The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference [Little, Brown and Company, 2000], Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking [2005], Outliers: The Story of Success [2008] and What the Dog Saw [2009], Mr. Gladwell leads his readers on odysseys into the inner workings of the human mind.

One of his most notable findings was the value of intuition. A long list of inventors, engineers, researchers and business leaders—from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Jonas Salk—have acknowledged the importance of intuition in their decision-making.

“Improvisation and intuition represent two important and related aspects of management in general and of the management of projects in particular,” noted Stephen Leybourne and Eugene Sadler-Smith, authors of a recent study on the subject.

PM Network asked Mr. Gladwell, the keynote speaker at this month's PMI Global Congress 2011 — North America, to provide insights on intuition and its role in business and project management.

PM Network: Why is intuition important? How can project professionals leverage it in their work?

Malcolm Gladwell: A tremendous amount of expertise resides in the unconscious mind. These aren't things we can necessarily describe, explain or map out. It's a steady accumulation of knowledge that lies below the surface and comes out in the form of intuition. This is one thing that distinguishes experts from non-experts. As the mind stores unconscious expertise, we become more sophisticated. Anyone juggling many different variables, dealing with incredibly new and complex issues, managing all kinds of different personalities has to, at some point, rely on this body of submerged knowledge to make sense of their tasks.

PM Network: Is this the 10,000 hours concept you discuss in your book Outliers?

Malcolm Gladwell: Yes. Ten thousand hours is a very useful way of understanding how long it takes to accumulate the kind of expertise necessary for instinctive cognitive reactions. The mistake people make with intuition is that they think it is something that resides in all of us. They believe that these feelings are things that all of us can trust under any circumstance. That's nonsense. Accurate gut feelings are things that we earn through study, experience, learning from our mistakes and steadily accumulating the kind of experiences that lead to real expertise.

PM Network: How can managers maximize the odds of success?

Malcolm Gladwell: Managers must place people in an environment where they can accumulate this sort of expertise. They must also single out the people who display a high level of intuitive expertise, and promote them. At the same time, they must find people who aren't good at this and keep them out of positions of real authority. That's a crude and brutal way to say it, but this is essentially what we want managers to do. We're describing one of the central things that makes someone good at their job. Not everyone is capable of learning in this way—deriving expertise from experience.

PM Network: Do some people have more innate intuition than others?

Malcolm Gladwell: I don't think so. To some extent, people come to the business of gathering experiences with more innate gifts. Some people are quicker learners. Some people have more open minds. Some people are more self-critical. Some people have more natural intelligence. There are, obviously, variations in how quickly or effectively people accumulate knowledge, but nobody is an expert at the beginning.

PM Network: What are the key differentiators between leaders and laggards when it comes to applying this unconscious intuitive knowledge?

Malcolm Gladwell: It's not intelligence. It has a lot to do with attitudes. It revolves around a person's willingness to be self-critical, to examine and critique beliefs. It's also about how open a person's mind is, how willing he or she is to test preconceived notions against new data, and how hard a person is willing to work.

PM Network: How important is emotional intelligence, or EQ?

Malcolm Gladwell: This is about more than EQ. Emotional intelligence is a part of the formula, but I‘m also talking about drive and determination. This bit about being self-critical is really important. If you think about 10,000 hours as the kind of necessary threshold for expertise, that's a long time. It's essentially 10 years. This means you have to be willing, for a decade, to systematically analyze what you're learning and critique it. Most people are not willing to stay engaged for this long. Most people get settled pretty early on in their profession and stop being self-critical. It takes a special kind of person who's motivated to keep learning to achieve the best possible results.

PM Network: What can a person do to ratchet up his or her intuition?

Malcolm Gladwell: Some of it is a person's character. People who come to their jobs with an innate humility are going to be better off in the end than those who think they've learned it all. The other factor is the environment people work in. If people are part of an environment where they are provided with timely, accurate and constructive feedback, it's a lot easier to build on that knowledge base, and it's a lot easier to be self-critical. The challenge for managers is to create an environment where it feels natural to keep learning from mistakes while remaining self-critical and humble.

PM Network: How can managers maximize the potential of a workforce?

Malcolm Gladwell: The key thing about a mistake is to distinguish between the right kind of mistake and the wrong kind of mistake. In basketball, they talk about good fouls and bad fouls. A good foul is a foul you commit when you are doing your job and being diligent. Maybe you are just a little too aggressive in one moment, and you get called for a foul. That's fine. A bad foul is a dumb foul where you do something that's just inexcusable because you're lazy, because you're not moving your feet, because you're not thinking. So it's important to make a clear distinction between smart mistakes and dumb mistakes.


Malcolm Gladwell is the keynote speaker at PMI Global Congress 2011—North America, 22-25 October, Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

The second thing is to actively build a culture that allows people to learn from their mistakes. I‘ve often been impressed by how, at the best teaching hospitals, surgeons have weekly meetings where they just sit down and talk about all the mistakes they made that previous week. Then everyone discusses how to avoid that error in the future. You have to be able to own up to your mistakes. This can only happen in an environment where people feel safe admitting when they are wrong.

PM Network: Are there situations where intuition can lead a person or a decision-maker astray?

Malcolm Gladwell: Deliberative conscious thinking also leads us astray all the time. If you look at errors that Wall Street traders and banks and governments made leading up to the financial crisis, some of them were errors of intuition. Some of them were errors of careful, controlled, considerate analysis. Both have their flaws. I‘m not advocating one type over another. We need both. But we need to be smart about how we use them and the inherent flaws of each.

PM Network: What types of decisions lend themselves to intuitive analysis?

Malcolm Gladwell: Typically, these are issues that are extremely complex, difficult to describe and involve people. Oftentimes, these involve unpredictable problems and many different personalities. There are plenty of situations where you can simply roll out the Excel spreadsheet or the mainframe. But there are also situations where this is not the case. Again, if you look at sports—let's say you're a basketball general manager— you can look at stats and past performance but you also have to look at the player's personality:

  • How comfortable and confident is this player?
  • How hard will he try?
  • How well does he get along with his teammates?
  • How good is he at responding to pressure?
  • How hard will he work when he gets injured?

There is no data for this. You can't go to a spreadsheet to get answers to these questions. The best general managers use data analysis and their intuition to find the real talent.

PM Network: Can you provide any examples of this type of thinking in the business world?

Malcolm Gladwell: Steve Jobs at Apple is a good example of a leader who has effectively used his intuition to make decisions about products and strategies. He has not relied on things like market research or consumer testing to provide all the answers. He understands that in a highly innovative field there are too many unknowns. Apple is not dealing with breakfast cereal. It's dealing with products people may not even know they want until they're available.

PM Network: Any words of advice for project managers?

Malcolm Gladwell: Make distinctions between what's knowable and what's not knowable. Use classic, rational, constant analysis, but be very clear about the things that are not predictable. When it comes to answering these types of questions, we have no choice but to rely on our best judgment. However, understand that when you rely on best judgment, the rules change a bit. Judgment is something that can't always be explained or defined. It doesn't come with an instruction manual. It requires a leap of faith. Managers and executives need to be educated about the nature of those kinds of judgments. They must learn to be comfortable with people who say, ‘I can't tell you why I‘m doing this, but I want to do it.’ They must understand that this is a legitimate position to take.

PM Network: Any parting thoughts?

Malcolm Gladwell: The best jobs are inherently mysterious. That's a reason to go to work every day. Sometimes we go out of our way to deny this or try to iron out these mysteries instead of embracing them. It's important to understand that there are things we can't predict with a spreadsheet or a software program. We have to turn to the people whom we trust and make the best judgment. PM

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