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Intuition and Decision Making

Intuition in creativity and business has been studied for years. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “an ability to understand or know something immediately based on your feelings rather than facts”, intuition has been increasingly seen as an important part of knowledge management in business. Noted individuals including Polanyi, Jung, Argyris and Schön have all been driven to investigate how intuition can affect a person’s life and decisions resulting in a deeper understanding of its connection to the decision-making process.

Some of the most well-known psychologists of our day – Freud and Kahneman to name but two – agree the mind has two processing systems which can be considered intuitive and non-intuitive in nature. One researcher of interest is Michael Polanyi, who argues there is a level of knowledge which cannot be codified or formally taught called tacit knowledge. He suggests there is a duality in awareness with both focal and subsidiary awareness forming the basis
of all tacit knowing that an individual both experiences and carries into their decision-making practice. For many people, intuition is seen solely as the realm of instinct but can be considered the same understanding of people, items and events developed outside of traditional learning as tacit knowledge.

Focal awareness

Focal awareness is the mind’s conscious focus on a key item related to the person’s current actions or situation. For example, when speaking with a new client an individual will likely focus on the client’s face and words to see if they are interested in the product.

Subsidiary awareness

To follow the above analogy, a person’s subsidiary awareness will then be on other sensory pieces experienced during the interaction with the new client. While most sensory items are a necessary and important part of the mental process, these sensations are not directly related to the key aspects of the task and therefore only require subsidiary awareness to support
the task at hand.

Tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is the knowledge gained by combining conceptual and sensory data to make sense of something without a formal transfer of information. Such knowledge is created by the entrepreneur combining all information absorbed via their focal and subsidiary awareness
throughout interactions such as a client meeting.


Both focal and subsidiary awareness are active in a person’s mind at any given time as they work together in a symbiotic relationship. This relationship often results in tacit knowledge, otherwise known as intuition, which typically becomes a key factor during decision making or creative processes.

Decision making

The focal awareness aspect of intuition in the decision-making process can often be seen through the passions people follow, the influence of individuals they have met, and the knowledge gained by life experience – all of which become part of any choice that person will make. Subsidiary awareness, as an aspect of intuition, lies in the details of life that people notice but don’t focus on, yet still play into the decision making and creative processes. Just as intuition or tacit knowledge requires the integration of both focal and subsidiary awareness to be effective, so too decision making must be done with the correct balance of focus.

The relationship between focal and subsidiary awareness is also important in relation to constructive criticism (helpful feedback) and the creative process. Constructive criticism, when delivered with good intention, can provide clarification and generative thinking which in turn creates a better outcome than what may have originally been produced. Criticism, when overthought, however, can kill an idea before it has the chance to grow. Likewise, creative thoughts or approaches to business, marketing or products can be inhibited by perfectionism where the focus on small subsidiary particulars during each stage the process can prevent products being completed, or in some cases started at all. In both the examples above the attachment of the individual’s awareness to an incorrect area of focus has created issues from what could have been opportunities. To help avoid these scenarios a clear understanding of why the decisions to focus on the criticism or smaller issues were made by the individual and what intuitive knowledge influenced it.

Throughout the last few decades there has been significant research on intuition in decision making, knowledge management and creativity. Work, like that produced by Polanyi, can help clarify the place of hunches, passions, informal education and intuition in the modern business world.

For a free consultation on how this can work for you, call Pauline on 0467 731 319.

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