Intuition and Bold Risk-Taking for Breakthrough Innovation and Growth #KMWorld

KMWlogo_Stacked_Session Title and Description: 

Maia Marken explores different ways of thinking, from professional poker and chess players to provoke, challenge, and inspire business leaders. In discussion with professional poker player Alec Torelli, she looks at the interplay between analytics and intuition in decision making in today’s workplace. They talk about a high-stakes game that ended in a surprise that all the math experts would not have expected because Torelli relied on his intuition. In a world full of data-driven decision making, is intuition dead? They explore this idea and its applications to business decision making. Marken and chess grandmaster Sam Shankland then explore the concept of bold risk-taking through a discussion of the 1972 chess championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, who took the entire chess world by storm when he opened with a new move, C4, despite a lifetime of having successfully played E4 as his opening move. While this move caught Spassky by surprise and demonstrated Fischer willingness to play in Spassky’s turf, it also was an objectively smart move, as Fischer went on to win the match. This and other case studies share lessons from chess and business on bold risk-taking.


  • Alec Torelli, Professional Poker Player
  • Sam Shankland, Professional Chess Player
  • Maia Marken, Chief of Staff, Worldwide Services Strategy, Cisco

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2017 Conference. I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Sam Shankland: Bold Risk-Taking.
    • By his own admission, Shankland (an Olympics-level chess player) is a risk-taker in chess and in life.
    • Bold Risk-Taking can be a brilliant move — provided that your bold risk is an intelligent risk. Shankland described how Bobby Fischer abandoned his favorite opening move (C4 move), which his opponent, Spassky, expected, and used instead Spassky’s favorite opening move (E4). This was an intelligent risk because it had the benefit of surprise and completely threw his competitor of his game.
    • Use your intuition to choose which risks to take AND the right moment in which to take the chosen risk.
    • How does this apply to your work? Maia Marken says that her team challenges each other’s thinking by asking if a suggested action is your C4 move (the favorite, usual thing) or your E4 move (a bold risk for you).
  • Alec Torelli: Intuition
    • Torelli is a professional poker player and coach.
    • The relationship between logic and intuition at the poker table:
      • [You can find a video of these on YouTube on Torelli’s channel.]
      • You need to use logic AND intuition in harmony — don’t rely on just one or the other.
      • Intuition informs your assumptions, which you then test through logic.
    • To strengthen intuition, pay attention to the clues that the other humans in the game are providing. Learn to interpret those clues (based on rigorous pattern recognition). In 1502, Da Vinci intuited that a suspension bridge could be built. To support his insight, he did the math to demonstrate the necessary calculations. He then proposed this to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire whose engineers were unanimous that this bridge could not be built. It wasn’t until 2001 that an engineering team was able to build Da Vinci’s bridge — in Norway.
  • How to get more skillful in taking risks?.
    • Practice makes it better, reflection makes it perfect. You can understand the theory of risk-taking but until you practice over and over, you won’t master the skill. And a critical part of that practice is reflection: examining what happened and why — when you lose AND when you win.
    • Separate yourself from the outcome — just focus on the process. This means removing the emotion related to the outcome and objectively make the best decision you can make with the information you have in the moment.
  • How to improve your judgment?
    • Check your ego at the door. After all, even the best professional poker players in the world lose 30% of the time. Therefore, never assume you are infallible. Instead, use every opportunity to improve.
    • Be open to learning.
    • Have someone in your life who calls you on your BS. (Torelli says his wife is invaluable for this!)