We have a special post for today. I had the pleasure of interviewing William Duggan about his new book, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement.
William Duggan, an associate professor of Management at Columbia Business School, is an expert on what he calls “strategic intuition.” Recently, his class on this subject was rated the highest by the students of Columbia of any of the 218 classes offered. Below is my e-mail interview with Mr. Duggan:
- Why did you write Strategic Intuition?
I wrote Strategic Intuition because I stumbled upon the idea and immediately thought it was interesting and important. In strategy, we have lots of techniques for analyzing your industry, your competitors, your own position, customer trends and the like — but none of those methods tells you how to conclude what strategy to adopt. And we have lots of techniques for planning, where you lay out the activities and milestones to accomplish your goal — but none of these methods tells you how to set a goal in the first place. There’s a missing link between strategic analysis and strategic planning: how do you get your strategic idea? That’s the question that strategic intuition answers. I haven’t seen any other answer, and I’ve done a thorough search.
- In a nutshell, what is strategic intuition?
Strategic intuition is the selective projection of past elements into the future in a new combination as a course of action that fits your previous goals or sparks new ones, with the personal commitment to follow through and work out the details along the way. It happens as a flash of insight when your mind is relaxed and connects the dots.
- How does it work?
Modern neuroscience has overturned the idea of two sides of the brain — creativity on one side, analysis on the other — in favor of “intelligent memory”, where the brain constantly searches for a useful synthesis of a subset of elements from the huge volume it takes in and stores. As it turns out, the first great work of strategy scholarship dates from 1832 — On War by Carl von Clausewitz — and puts the same idea at the center of strategic success. Von Clausewitz gives four steps: 1) examples from history, where you take in elements of what others have done before you to succeed; 2) presence of mind, where you enter the strategic situation with no expectations of what the goal, problem, solution, or strategy should be; 3) “coup d’oeil”, which means “glance” in French, where selective elements from examples from history come together in your mind as a flash of insight; and 4) resolution, which is the determination to carry through the idea you’ve just seen in your mind.
- What are the differences between strategic intuition and intuition discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink?
Blink is about “expert” intuition, which is fast and works in familiar situations, the way a tennis pro knows where the ball will go from the arc and speed of an opponent’s racket. “Strategic” intuition is slow and works in new situations — that flash of insight you had last night might solve a problem that’s been at the back of your mind for a month. And in many cases expert intuition is the enemy of strategic intuition: if you enter a new situation, your expert intuition might recognize one piece of it and jump to a conclusion in an instant. Instead, you need time to let your strategic intuition search widely for all the different pieces that make up the new situation. In the military, there’s a famous case of “Slow Joe Dowdy,” the first commanding officer to be relieved of his post during battle since World War II. In the invasion of Iraq, the US troops used their expert intuition to advance quickly on the enemy army. Joe Dowdy’s troops took heavy fire from the rooftops going through Kut. He stopped on the other side and sat on a playground swing just thinking. His superior officer flew in and fired him for going too slow. As we now know, Joe Dowdy’s strategic intuition was slowly working away — he was the first US officer to realize, however dimly, that it was a guerilla war, not a conventional one.
- Can you give us some examples of strategic intuition found in the business world?
In a series of flashes of insight, the Google guys put together four previous elements that they did not invent to make their great innovation: data mining algorithms, Altavista’s full-text web search, reverse link ranking as in academic citations, and Overture’s ad searches that display as lists rather than banners or pop-ups. Even better, their discovery changed their goal: they started out as Stanford graduate students working on e-commerce data mining and put together the four elements for that, but then others at Stanford started using their research tool as a search engine and said it was fantastic. So the Google guys switched to search. This is all in David Vise’s book, The Google Story.
- So are brainstorming session useless?
If by brainstorming you mean “thinking aloud with other people,” then brainstorming is vital. But if you mean brainstorming as “scheduled sessions where we pick a topic and together throw out creative ideas”, then brainstorming is useless. In workshops over the past few years I’ve asked thousands of people, “When do you get your best ideas?” and not a single person ever said “In organized brainstorming sessions.” It’s usually “in the shower,” or “at night”, or “when talking to someone about something other than what I’m working on.”
- How can marketers benefit from strategic intuition?
First of all, marketers are strategists just like anyone else. They must figure out a course of action toward a worthwhile goal. Strategic intuition is the way to do that. In the book there’s a specific tool I discovered at GE that lets you do that as a team – not as a brainstorming session, but over days and even weeks if need be. Second, marketers need to remember that “stealing” elements from the past tell you more about what to do than focus groups or other forms of marketing research. I think marketers are used to taking elements from elsewhere to some degree, but they might need to be reminded how widely you need to look. That is, don’t just steal from other marketers, which is “stealing inside the box”, so to speak. To “steal outside the box”, look outside marketing. One classic example is Henry Ford: he got the idea for the moving assembly line from Oldsmobile’s first stationary assembly line, plus the moving overhead line from the slaughterhouses in the Chicago stockyards. See how widely old Henry opened his mind to look for elements to combine? We all need to do the same.
- How can we find out more about strategic intuition?
You mean, after you read the book? In New York City I’ll be doing a two-day workshop March 20-21 through Columbia Executive Education. You can go back to my earlier research reports, Napoleon’s Glance and The Art of What Works. Or go to the sources: On War by Von Clausewitz, Intelligent Memory by Barry Gordon and Lisa Berger, or How Breakthroughs Happen by Andrew Hargadon. Strategic Intuition cites other references that you can follow up too.
- Bonus question: What is your favorite Seinfeld episode?
The Pony Remark, but only for that bit because one secret of the show’s success — that Larry David is now re-using in Curb Your Enthusiasm — is that there are 3 or 4 bits per episode and they all don’t have to work for you to remember the episode fondly. (I didn’t remember what else happened in that episode, so I just looked it up: Kramer bets Jerry he’ll redo his apartment as a multi-level, and then backs out.)