Intuition in decision making, lessons learnt from the British Army

In 2015 I wrote a dissertation on military decision-making to complete my MBA.  You can find the executive summary below, and the full dissertation at the link at the bottom of the page.

This dissertation was designed to be an independent analysis, and should not be seen as a critique of the military (in which I served for over a decade) or of members of the military.  This assessment aims to provide a mirror to engender honest reflection and a basis for further analysis and discussion.


There is no doubt that the difference between a successful army and a mediocre one lies in the quality of the command decisions taken by its officers.

Ikpe, 2014


Military leaders operate in environments where the institutions and ordinary rules of society are failing or have failed.  In such environments, problems become extreme and decisions have life-changing and life-ending consequences.  Military leaders need to be able to schedule logistics (a tame problem), respond to an ambush (a critical problem) and develop post-conflict stabilisation strategies (a wicked problem).  Analysis of recent military operations shows that lessons need to be learnt at all levels and that military decision-making needs to be scrutinised.  This research examines military decision-making and identifies areas for improvement.

An initial study of 239 British Army officers found that leadership was perceived to be the most important factor in military decision-making.  A further 352 officers completed surveys designed to test this faith in leadership by examining individual decision-making effectiveness, follower satisfaction, self-awareness about decision-making and measures of success.  A mean score of 34-40% across two decision-making tests showed that, in line with the general population, officers consistently failed to apply intuition and logic effectivelyNo positive correlations were found between decision-making ability and careers success (measured by an officer’s rank, their speed of promotion, performance grades or level of military education).  Two particular biases were uncovered: risk-aversion and loss-aversion were high and increased with career success, suggesting a strong bias towards maintaining the status quo.  Officers were also found to lack awareness of the limits of their decision-making ability.

Follower satisfaction was strongly correlated with decision-making effectiveness, which supports the link between leadership and decision-making found in the leadership literature and the initial study.  However, no relationship was found between follower satisfaction and career success.  That decision-making effectiveness, awareness about decision-making and follower-satisfaction were not related to career success is concerning, and questions the role of leadership in military career success.  These findings have consequences for military decision-making and the growing trend of empowering followers.  While empowerment is a noble aim, this research demonstrates that it is not without considerable risk.  Therefore, military decision-making needs to be continually improved to provide a sustainable relative advantage over opponents.

The academic contribution of this research is that it reconciles Grint’s typology of tame, critical and wicked problems with Kahneman’s work on the conditions of intuitive expertise.  The validity of the environment and expertise determine the utility of intuition and logic.  This insight enabled the author to develop a simplified heuristic model (Fig 5), which allows leaders to explore the utility of intuition and logic, and thereby optimise their decision-making.  While there are caveats, intuition provides a speed advantage and maximises the benefit of expertise when facing critical and tame problems.  However, intuition is precarious when used outside the realm of expertise, or when used to address wicked problems.  It is only through a process of collectively and logically testing multiple possible solutions that wicked problems can be addressed.  This research also demonstrates that military decision-making frameworks support decision-making by mediating ineffective individual decision-making.  Leadership and decision-making literature both suggest that self-awareness and self-regulation are also essential because they allow leaders to adapt their leadership approach and use of intuition and logic to the type of problem faced.

Military doctrine and education need to articulate better how context, decision-making and leadership interactMilitary decision-making frameworks are ideally suited to mediating ineffective individual decision-making, but many officers do not use them.  Their use needs to be revitalised, especially outside of combat.  To improve individual decision-making, the author proposes that leaders use a 3R framework (Record, Re-check and Reassess) to expose how decision-making effectiveness changes with context.  Leaders using this framework will be more effective in applying intuition and logic and in adapting their leadership approach.  With further research, these findings and recommendations are likely to be widely applicable outside the military.


You can download my full dissertation here 20150302 Eskell Dissertation.  Any feedback or thoughts on my approach, results or analysis are more than welcome.