Strategic Intuition

“Behind every story of major advance is a turning point where someone has a useful idea that changes the field or starts a new one. Strategic intuition explains what happens in the mind of whoever has that idea.”  (Click to Tweet!)

 Strategic Intuition, Preface, page x

Is there a common way of thinking, or mental mechanism, at the heart of outstanding advancements across all fields and disciplines? It would be a hell of a thing if there was, right? Well, Columbia Business School associate professor William Duggan, offers an insightful book that makes a strong case that there is and that anyone can do it. He calls that mechanism “strategic intuition”.

While The Medici Effect, which I reviewed last month, describes external mechanisms for new idea creation, Strategic Innovation focuses on the internal mechanisms. Many books discuss innovation and creativity, but few delve into the actual details or offer suggestions on how those new ideas happen. Strategic Intuition explains how the mind takes huge leaps to the next “big” idea.

Golden Egg

Flashes of Insight

“By pulling together these various sources, we are able to arrive at a modern discipline that puts flashes of insight at the center of a philosophy of action across all fields of human endeavor.”

Strategic Intuition, page 1

The “various sources” Duggan refers to, in the line above, come from the book’s many innovation examples in the fields of science, psychology, business, neuroscience, education, social enterprise, and military strategy.  Strategic Intuition is a whirlwind tour of the history of innovation and creative thinking. This journey of discovery underlines and reinforces the consistency of a conscious, or unconscious process the innovators followed to develop their new ideas and successful endeavors – from Napoleon to Martin Luther King; Picasso to ex-IBM CEO Lou Gertsner; from Grameen Bank founder Mahamad Yunus to Thomas Kuhn, the great historian of scientific achievement.

In all the examples we review, none of the innovators began with a master theory. But, they all shared a pattern. Duggan reveals, through interviews and biographies, how Bill Gates & Paul Allen (Microsoft), Sergey Brins & Larry Page (Google) , and Steve Jobs (Apple) were successful , not because of any preconceived opinions, but through mixing successful elements around them that they saw were working through a “flash of insight”.  In most cases, these flashes of insight created something the innovators could not have foreseen otherwise. Microsoft, Google, and Apple are given as examples of companies formed out of a spontaneous recombination of successful elements spotted by the founders. They were more a “strategy of rearrangement, not invention”.

Why is this particular process so prevalent? Duggan offers that this recombinant activity is the way the brain works naturally and most effectively. He points to advancements in neuroscience that have been steadily charting how the brain functions. Key research came from neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel who won the 2000 Nobel Prize for his work overturning the two brain – right brain, left brain – theory (even though that old brain model is still held by many management practitioners and trainers).  Today an MRI machine can “see” how a single thought sparks activity in multiple brain areas, including left and right sides simultaneously.

This newest working model of the brain recognizes that intuition and analysis, the creative and the logical, are together in all modes of thought. Neuroscientists have observed more of a “mosaic” or “intelligent memory” model of brain functioning where the brain is recognized as “the greatest inventory system on earth” and that it takes information apart (parsing) and stores it in the “shelves of the brain”, readying it for future use. This structural mechanism in the brain is the basis for strategic intuition and it suggests that the brain is hardwired and maximally effective at developing new ideas through flashes of insight – combining old ideas and recent knowledge into new ideas and vision.

The extensive documentation, research, and examples given make a very strong case for the theory of strategic intuition and flashes of insight as a serious model to use for anyone looking for more innovation and creative ideas.

GEM #1

The four steps towards innovation (mind training)

“These four elements apply to all fields of human endeavor.”

Strategic Intuition, page 61

Strategic Intuition provides an actionable process you can apply to any challenge – the same mental process used consistently by many of history’s greatest and most successful innovators. Duggan outlines this step-by-step innovation system in the hopes that “by understanding how it works, you can do it more and better yourself”.

Duggan describes the non-linear, thought process of innovation creation as:

1) Start by building a strong knowledge base through extensive study of the issue at hand and its elements, both within and outside of your industry.

2) Drop preconceptions and clear your mind to be open to new possibilities.

3) Proceed to opportunistically combine and re-combine elements of the issue with sources discovered (history and what is working around you) until they come together in a new combination that addresses the problem.

4) Have the resolve to test and follow through the new idea to make it happen.

Take a problem you are currently working on and try tackling it with the above process to generate new solutions. See where it takes you.

GEM #2

Welcome to the Matrix (team tool)

“The operative assumption is that someone, somewhere, has a better idea; and the operative compulsion is to find out who has that better idea, learn it, and put it into action – fast.”  (Click to Tweet)

Strategic Intuition, page 141

Developed at GE and heavily utilized by CEO Jack Welch and Chief Learning Officer Steve Kerr, the what-works matrix was used to solve all types of problems and challenges. The matrix mapped out the issue in question by stating, on the first line, your understanding of the situation or goal. Next, you identify and list all the elements you think are part of a good solution to the problem. Then, you ask yourself who has successfully solved any of these elements or pieces of the puzzle before and list those sources across the top. Now, “the treasure hunt” begins as you start exploring the sources and filling in the matrix with what could work.

To better understand, here’s an example of what a matrix model might look like:

Situation or Challenge

Sources of Prior Success

Source #1  Source #2  Source #3 Source #4 Source #5

Element #1

Element #2

Element #3

Element #4

Element #5

Element #6

The value of the matrix is that it generates a creative, visual exercise that a company or team could follow without it being bound by any single approach or bias. Essentially, it helps you piece together new ideas from a combination of old ideas from many different sources, industries and approaches.


Strategic Intuition wants you to think about where ideas come from and consider how your mind works. It is a fascinating exploration into how the human brain rearranges and connects experience and knowledge to create entirely new ideas in flashes of insight. It gives us the renewed confidence and the steps to take to address our biggest challenges.

In the comments below, let us know…

Have you had flashes of insight on solving a problem you have been working on? Share some with us.

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Bill Hortz

ABOUT Bill Hortz

I’m an independent consultant and business catalyst focused on the game-changing nature of strategic thinking, innovation creation and strategic account management...
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