Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement

by William Duggan 2007                                                     


William Duggan opens his final chapter in this book by describing two statements that he uses in his classes to ask students which one they most agree with:

1. You can achieve anything you want if you believe in yourself, set clear goals, and work hard.
2. You can achieve many things if you prepare for opportunity, see it, and act on it.

He says that most American students, business executives, army officers and non-profit leaders say that the first statement is the one they agree with more. Non-Americans tend to agree with the second statement more but the longer they have been in America the more likely they'll agree with the first statement.

If you read the first statement critically it is clearly nonsense. I cannot set out to captain my country in cricket, and never could have. It is a statement that seems to be driven by self-help gurus and motivational speakers. The author goes on to describe the real situation around one of the key stories that is told about goal setting and achievement. That story is the one of President John F. Kennedy declaring that the Americans would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. What is little known is that before Kennedy was elected NASA had a plan for a moon landing to occur between 1968 and 1971, and that the Soviets had a plan for a moon landing in 1967. So the statement by Kennedy was not really the audacious goal setting speech to beat the soviets that it was made out to be. He was planning to come second and only asking for resources for the plan that was already in place before he arrived.

This book is essentially about the difference in strategy approaches between the “that is our goal lets go and get it” school of strategy and what might be termed anticipatory awareness, which we would argue is far more needed in a fast changing and modern world. Essentially Duggan asks where we get the flashes of inspiration that create great goals in the first place, and innovative ways of achieving them.

In order to achieve his goal of persuading us to his view, Duggan does three things:

1. He explores notions of how the brain works and dismisses comprehensively the left brain right brain model that has been surpassed by new research in neuro-science and yet remains embedded in popular culture and literature. New research shows that the brain acts as a whole and that all components are required for what Duggan terms intelligent memory, which he says is a pre-requisite for strategic intuition.

2. He contrasts strategic intuition with expert intuition. Expert intuition is where you are able to make rapid and good decisions because your expertise allows you to recognise familiar patterns and respond appropriately. In the chapter on this subject he discusses at length the work of Gary Klein who showed that decision-making by experts under pressure was totally different from a psychological model that had previously prevailed. Paradoxically expert intuition is the enemy of strategic intuition because the recognition of familiar patterns leads you to follow down certain paths, which are likely to stifle rather than foster innovation. Strategic intuition on the other hand is about making new connections and creating new patterns, largely from pre-existing ideas and thoughts.

3. He looks at the difference in strategy in a number of areas including military strategy. In this section he contrasts the approaches of Carl von Clausewitz and Napoleon with those of Jomini, who primarily was from the “there is our objective, lets go get it school”. Carl von Clausewitz and Napoleon believed in the concept of Coup D’Oeil, which in the English language is equivalent to “a flash of insight” although it does not strictly translate in that manner. Duggan argues that expert intuition would allow individuals to drag up a previous approach or strategy while Napoleon was able to drag up previous approaches and recombine them into a new approach. Duggan says that there are four steps in this process:

• Intelligent memory - which is how our brains store what we have learned as we have gone through life
• Presence of mind – the ability to clear our minds of previous ideas, or even what our goals are
• The flash of insight itself
• Resolution - the movement from flash of insight to action

In the end you might be asking yourself what does this mean in practical terms for you and your organisation. Some of the answers are:

• You need deep experience and learning in your organisation along with different perspectives.
• People in the organisation need time and space to have presence of mind.
• Standard brainstorming techniques do not really work on their own. People need time to mull over what they see and hear and to allow their brain to make connections. Multiple sessions over a period of weeks where people are only allowed to bring in ideas and thoughts they already have are an alternative that you should try.

For the rest of the ideas you will have to read the book and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is concerned about how they innovate and have problems with the current strategy approach their organisation takes.