Christian Mumenthaler: On Intuition


Christian Mumenthaler is Group Chief Executive Officer of Swiss Re. He holds a PhD in Physics from ETH Zurich and is an alumnus of the 2003 Young Leaders Conference.

Intuition – or more colloquially: gut feeling - is beyond rationalization. By the definition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it's "a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence."

Consequently, intuition has a rather difficult stance in today's business world that is dominated by facts and figures. This is also true for my line of business at Swiss Re – global reinsurance. On the surface, models, probabilities and calculated actuarial reserves seem to leave little room for intuition…

And yet, in our highly complex world, as leaders we inevitably have to take most of our decisions based on more or less incomplete information.

I have found intuition to work incredibly well in situations that I have lived through many times. It seems to work a bit like the neural networks used in machine learning: once they are trained with lots of data, they produce instant results. The difference, of course, is that we talk about a real neural network: our brain.

The intuitive feeling can very often be rationalized once one takes the time to reflect on it. This makes it a very powerful tool for fast decision making. Looking back at my career, I have made more mistakes when listening to my rational side than when trusting my intuition.

Yet there are situations where intuition will be biased. One would expect this to be the case when past experience is not a good guide for the future, e.g. in a field outside of one's expertise or culture. Being aware of that is essential.

The fact that one can get to conclusions within seconds using intuition can also come across as disconcerting to others who rely less on intuition. In a diverse management team, some will always feel that a conclusion cannot hold firm unless it's the result of careful analysis and deliberate thinking.

In these settings I've learned to use intuition as a first indication, as a compass, but to hold back with conclusions before having heard all voices at the table.