How Leaders Leverage Intuition to Navigate Complexity

IDEO Senior Portfolio Director Dwayne Edwards gives a presentation

The tension in the room where Dwayne Edwards stood was palpable. As an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, he was responsible for the safety of the government official speaking that day, his team, and the crowd of locals. He was also responsible for contributing to the larger strategic mission by making sure the speaker could deliver his message. While the event started out well, the energy of the crowd shifted in an instant. Dwayne had to make a call. Do they stay or go? He recalls, “In that moment I couldn’t leverage anything but my gut feeling.” He called off the event and avoided an incident, helping to further their overall mission.

Now a Senior Portfolio Director at IDEO, Dwayne pulls from his experience in the Marine Corps and as a former product manager at Volvo Cars of North America to navigate complex situations and craft new products, services, and capabilities designed for human needs. As an instructor in IDEO U’s newest course Leading Complex Projects, he shares the tools and techniques he’s found most helpful in guiding others through the inevitable ups and downs of complex projects. 

In this Creative Confidence Podcast conversation, Dwayne talks about tapping into intuition as a leader. He gives a framework for balancing intuition and data, shares strategies to surface an intuitive ability in yourself and in your team, and talks about the importance of building self-awareness to fuel your intuition. Below are our top takeaways from chatting with Dwayne. Listen to the podcast episode for even more insights.

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Why intuition is so helpful when navigating complexity

What do we mean by a complex project? It’s one where you have stakeholders with differing opinions, plans shifting quickly, and what was once a clear path forward has become uncertain. Things begin to feel a bit murky. 

Intuition is helpful in these moments because you’ll often have too little or too much information, or you need to make a decision quickly. Analyzing all the data just isn’t an option. The more complex the project, the more Dwayne says we need to make space for intuition. 

He’s confident that “once we learn to leverage, build and grow our intuition, we’ll be able to navigate complex moments more seamlessly.” 

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Intuition starts with trust

We’ve all had a moment in a meeting where we wanted to ask a question or share an idea but held back. Then someone else says it and you kick yourself for not trusting your gut. Dwayne says this is what it’s all about: “Intuition starts with trust.”

Think of trust in two layers: trust of others and trust of yourself. In the Marine Corps example, Dwayne’s team had to trust that as a leader he would make the best decision possible and keep their safety a top priority. He also had to trust himself and his intuition when he had little else to go on. But trust is something that’s built over time and reinforced as teammates practice sharing more openly about their identities. It's a non-linear process that takes hard work.

“As a humble practitioner, there have been moments where I heard my internal voice and didn’t listen to it,” he admits. He encourages his team to recognize their intuition by modeling the behavior. Phrases he turns to often include “My gut is telling me…” and “I’m not sure why I feel this way, but…” 

By making space for people to voice their intuitive feelings, he’s showing them “it’s OK to not know exactly where this is coming from, but let's unpack it.” Intuition is a powerful starting point.


“Intuition starts with trust.”
Dwayne Edwards


When to lead with intuition vs. data

Following your intuition doesn’t mean you don’t also do research and thoroughly explore all your options before moving forward. It’s about finding a balance between the two and making space for your gut instinct to play a role.

When deciding if your situation is conducive to a more intuitive or data-centered approach, Dwayne asks himself, “What’s the impact I want to have, and how do I get there?” 

A cost/benefit analysis is another helpful framework. Consider:

  • Gravity of the investment
  • Risk involved
  • Your audience

An intuitive approach can be good when the gravity of the investment is minimal, there’s less risk, and your audience is comfortable with less data. For example, if you’re choosing between two good options and data has already backed them up. Or to explore a hunch at the beginning of a project before seeking out more data. 

A data-driven approach is helpful when making high-gravity, high-risk decisions or speaking to an audience who prefers this approach. For example, a go/no-go decision on an expensive project. 

At Volvo, Dwayne remembers a product launch where his instinct told him the product wasn’t premium enough for Volvo’s audience. He knew he had to back up that feeling with data if he was going to convince leadership to make costly changes. He did some analysis and his presentation persuaded the team to go in a different direction.


How to build your (and your team’s) intuitive muscle

Your intuition is a valuable signal, but it won’t always be right. We don’t develop this muscle overnight. Dwayne calls out the importance of practicing using intuition and interpreting its signals. “Be comfortable with the fact you're going to make mistakes,” he says. “Be comfortable learning from them and adapting.”

In the IDEO U course he teaches, Leading Complex Projects, you’ll learn about seven strategies for surfacing intuition. On the podcast, Dwayne dives deeper on two of his favorites: push the pace and relax your mind.

7 Strategies for Surfacing Intuition

  1. Push the pace
  2. Zoom out
  3. Relax your mind
  4. Switch modes
  5. Get expressive
  6. Speak body language 
  7. Seek expansion

Seven strategies for surfacing intuition graphic from IDEO U from the Leading Complex Projects online course.

Push the pace

Dwayne likes to use this tactic with his team to help them surface their intuition. He asks what they’d do if they had to decide on an approach right now. While it feels uncomfortable to most, “It’s in that moment of discomfort that you know you’re helping to enable growth.” On a recent IDEO project, he did this activity and when the team reflected back on their initial gut reactions at the end of the project there were hints of the final deliverable already showing up. 

Relax your mind

Yoga, running, and meditation are all things Dwayne turns to for mental relaxation. And not just for rest, but as a way to stop the intake of information and make space for his brain to process that information and make sense of it. 

“It’s in these moments where I allow the filing system in my brain to connect what I couldn't make sense of prior to that consolidation moment,” he says of the value of setting aside “consolidation time” each quarter. Trust that your brain is still working on the problem even if you’re not actively focusing on it. 

Self-awareness fuels intuition

It can be challenging to separate intuition from other emotions like stress, fear or arrogance. That’s why Dwayne says “there is nothing more important in building our intuition than working on self-awareness.”

Understanding the source of your emotional reactions is a good place to start. Dwayne strives to minimize his personal reaction so, as he puts it, he can be a vessel for those around him and help to serve the collective purpose. Mindfulness work helps him minimize his ego and observe his reactions almost externally. When trying to tap into your intuition, ask yourself if your feelings are related to the idea at hand or other things happening in your life. For example, you may have a negative reaction to an idea in a meeting, but could it be that you are already stressed because your child is sick?

Finding the line between being confident and overconfident also takes practice. There’s a tension there, Dwayne says. You have to be confident enough to share your ideas, but open to other perspectives at the same time. 

“As a leader, you have to be open to learning from both the good and bad choices you make,” he insists. “Take time to pause and reflect.” Hosting a debrief after a project is a good way to create space to ask what went well and what could have been better.


“There is nothing more important in building our intuition than working on self-awareness.”
Dwayne Edwards


Keep a learning mindset

“So much about our careers and life is all about learning and adapting,” Dwayne says. There’s a point when we become professionals and we think knowing is more important. 

As you practice tapping into your intuition (and make some mistakes along the way) remember Dwayne’s advice: “Let go of this desire to know everything, and deal with the complexity of life. Learn, adapt, grow.”

Learn an adaptable approach to deliver stronger outcomes in changing conditions in our online course Leading Complex Projects. Get a sneak peek of the course in this video.

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