The year was 1998. Tim Cook was on the fast track, recently recruited as a top executive at the world's largest personal computer company.

But that company wasn't Apple.

His employer at the time was Compaq, which some readers might not even remember--but which was much bigger than Apple then, and which seemed like a potentially better bet to be a big technology success story of the 21st century.

Almost everything we think of when we think of Apple today was still in the future: iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, the App Store, the MacBook, the iMac desktop computer.

Heck, even the bright orange Apple iBook that Elle Woods used in the movie Legally Blonde was still a few years away from existence.

So, what drove Cook to leave Compaq and join Steve Jobs at Apple -- especially considering that Jobs had been back at Apple for less than two years?

It's an interesting story--and an illustration of how to weave intuition into a logical decision-making process.

The value of intuition

Cook explained his thinking in a speech at Auburn University a few years back.

It came down to going against the grain of what he'd been taught to do as an engineer, he said, which was to "make decisions analytically and largely without emotion."

But the biggest decisions are sometimes the ones where choosing logically simply won't get you to the right answer. 

"There are times in all of our lives," Cook said, "when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate--when a particular course of action just feels right. And, interestingly, I've discovered it's in facing life's most important decisions that intuition seems the most indispensable."

The Steve Jobs example

It's funny. Cook has now been the CEO of Apple for nine years. Apple is worth multiples of what it was worth at the time of Jobs's death, and while it's clear that Jobs will always loom large, Cook has put his stamp on the world's biggest company.

That's what makes it interesting to me to look back at Cook's original decision to join the company, and see how it squares with the way Jobs made big decisions.

A few Jobs examples--all of which involved adding intuition to logic:

  • The decision to put time and effort into creating "multiple typefaces" and "proportionally spaced fonts" on the original Mac computer, which Jobs talked about at Stanford in 2005. (Customers didn't know they wanted it; it didn't exist.)
  • Jobs's response to an insulting question about why he wasn't more focused on individual products. (That's easy, Jobs replied. "The hardest thing," he said, "is: How does that fit into a cohesive, larger vision, that's going to allow you to sell $8 billion, $10 billion of product a year?")
  • His decision, just a few months before the launch of the first iPhone, to scrap the plastic screen it was originally going to ship with and instead manufacture it with glass. (Only problem: Sufficiently scratch-resistant glass didn't exist. There's a whole story about how Jobs supposedly strong-armed the CEO of Corning into creating the product in a matter of weeks.)

See what I mean? Logic only gets you so far. But logic plus intuition leads to some very interesting outcomes.

Tim Cook's decision

So let's go back to 1998, once more. As Cook explained, "any purely rational consideration of cost and benefits" would have led him to stay at Compaq instead of Apple.

Instead, he quickly decided to make the big leap. Very quickly, rejecting the advice of everyone who told him to stay put.

"Not more than five minutes into my initial interview with Steve, I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind and join Apple," Cook said, adding:

My intuition already knew that joining Apple was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work for the creative genius, and to be on the executive team that could resurrect a great American company.

If my intuition had lost the struggle with my left brain, I'm not sure where I would be today, but I'm certain I would not be standing in front of you.

50 percent-plus-1

It's worth noting of course that Jobs was still alive and running Apple when Cook made this speech, so it probably didn't hurt to praise the boss like that. But I'm willing to take Cook at his word when he explains the story.

Also, I don't know if Jobs and Cook ever sat down and talked about this kind of intuitive decision-making process.

But I've certainly seen other successful CEOs articulate it, or something close. I suppose I'm attuned to this especially because I've reflected recently on the "disagree and commit" rubric that Jeff Bezos advocates.

I think part of it comes down to this: If your decision making is limited to lining up costs and benefits, and choosing what we might call the 50-percent-plus-1 option, you negate any advantage you might have by being bold or intuitive.

Because anyone can choose 50-percent-plus-1. There's nothing special about 50-percent-plus-1. 

The big takeaway lesson?

Gather the data. Figure out the logical decision.

But if you're smart enough, and bold enough, trust your intuition. The right side of your brain knows things, even if you can't quite explain why.