By Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon Athletics.
From Fornes Magazine.
We live in a data-driven world.
From hiring decisions, to investments, to dating — it seems like all of life’s biggest decisions are now made on the basis of number-crunching algorithms.
Given our cultural bias toward quantifiable data, it can be tricky to trust decisions made based on your body’s own process for interpreting the information around you: your gut.
Intuition is big data for your body. It’s the result of your body’s own algorithms processing millions of data points that surround you every day. That’s why more than 40% of CEOs say they still make decisions based on intuition, despite having access to troves of empirical data.
Don’t get me wrong, data and analytics bring a lot to the business table. But there’s a balance to be struck between putting blind trust in computer-generated reports and learning to listen to the wealth of information conveyed through a good old-fashioned gut feeling.
The mechanics of the “gut check”
The warning bells you get about a shifty-seeming person or a dicey situation are the product of millions of years of evolution. Our intuition is our body’s way of signalling danger — or lack thereof — before our rational minds can explain it.
The problem is, in our hyper-rational culture, it can be very difficult to recognize what our guts are telling us. This is particularly true in a business context where quantifiable metrics rule and decision-makers who don’t understand customers’ subconscious psychological motives demand hard-and-fast evidence.
One challenge in recognizing the value of your body’s feedback loop is that it’s highly individual. Some people get headaches, others tense shoulders. For me, there’s a tightening in the pit of my stomach that tells me when something’s wrong — although I haven’t always listened to it.
Looking back at my youth, I can see many times I ignored my body’s signals and things ended badly — from having “friends” who turned out to lack integrity to being sold products that proved unreliable.
As I got older, the consequences of not trusting my inner alarm system became much more costly. When I first started lululemon and identified yoga as an emerging trend, I didn’t encounter any internal resistance at all — even when I hired athletes instead of experienced executives to get our brand off the ground. Back then, it was the absence of this gut feeling that gave me the green light.
But shortly after the company went public, that started to change. I’d get knots in my stomach when the board of directors brought in expensive consultants to review our product design process — something we already excelled at, which was reflected in our profits.
In 2011, I realized printed leggings were going be a huge trend, long before they became the wardrobe staple they are today. But when it dawned on me that colleagues were still stuck in the past—focused on existing top sellers rather than skating to where the “puck was going”—I got an ugly feeling in my stomach.
Gut reactions like these signalled some real unease about the way the company was being run — and the mindset of people in positions of power. But I deferred to their business expertise, instead of paying attention to ever-increasing tension in my gut. It turned out that sitting back on the printed leggings trend is what allowed lululemon’s competition — Nike, Under Armour, Athleta, etc. — to catch up to us.
How to give your gut legitimacy
What I’ve learned from those experiences is that it’s not enough to learn to trust your gut — you also have to learn to make the business case for why others should trust it, as well.
Sometimes this means backing up your body’s “big data” with more traditionally accepted analytics. If I’d gone into meetings armed with my track record of successfully spotting trends — backed up with some hard numbers on how those had panned out in record profits — I might have been more successful in promoting my vision.
These days, I have other techniques I use to verify that my instinct is on track. For example, we all have biases, fears and preconditioned ways of looking at the world that can cloud our judgement. So I’ve found it invaluable to assemble a panel of people who have experience in areas where I don’t, be it in real estate, compensation or negotiation.
This panel can be a formal board of lawyers and experts (directors) or it can just be a group of trusted mentors and colleagues (advisors). (My wife, for example, is my most trusted advisor.) The key to good advisors is they don’t have a dog in the fight — and that they have your best interest in mind (which isn’t necessarily the case with conflicted directors).
If I’m feeling uneasy about a business transaction, I’ll bounce my concerns off my advisors. Usually, they’re able to pinpoint what’s causing the problem for me and flag potential solutions. It could be something as simple as adding an extra clause in a contract, or specifying a certain condition for satisfaction. It doesn’t mean I have to take their advice, but it’s silly of me not to use it in the decision-making process.
Giving your gut time (and space) to work
Of course, none of this gets you anywhere if you don’t first learn to listen to your gut. And that can take some practice — and often some time. It certainly has for me. I was well into my business career before I learned to pay attention to my gut at all, and for a long time I simply ignored the messages it was sending.
I’ve found mindfulness, meditation and yoga have helped me get in better touch with my intuition. When lululemon was in hyper-growth and there were demands flying at me from all angles, I’d escape to the bathroom to take a few deep breaths and focus on a dot envisioned in the middle of my mind. These mini-meditations brought me back to my body and helped me to become aware of the signals it was sending me.
Another technique that’s really helped me tune into my intuition is taking a bit of time to make important decisions. It runs counter to our culture of immediacy, but I’ve found I get a lot of respect from people when I ask for 24 hours to really consider an important proposition. Waiting too long to make a decision in our digital world is sometimes seen as creating more problems than it solves. But being a decisive executive doesn’t always require hair-trigger judgements, especially on complex issues.
My process isn’t perfect by any means. Learning how to listen to my gut is something I haven’t always been very good at, and it’s something I continually work on. But I feel like I’m much more in tune with it now, and it helps me make better decisions, in business and beyond. The one thing I’m confident in is that there is a science to the gut — the exact mechanics might be hard to unravel, but there’s some sophisticated data crunching that goes on in the pit of our stomachs.
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