Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 4, 2009

On Strategic Intuition

Strategic Intuition by William Duggan

Strategic Intuition by William Duggan

Late last night I decided it was time to spend some quality time alone with a real book, which reminded me of the shredded trees that are piled up beside the bed demanding to be read. Accordingly, I (rather quickly) read through Strategic Intuition by William Duggan. It provides a novel (for me at least) perspective on creativity, essentially rejecting a range of cliches attached to “left-brain, right-brain” hypothesis, and arguing that most innovative ideas and strategies are provided by “flashes” of insight where the whole brain (or a mosaic of elements) participates in a process he calls “intelligent memory”. I haven’t had the chance yet to read it extremely closely, but the core ideas intrigued me, and the examples he presents from neuroscience, history and business are well-presented.

I find Duggan’s whole argument very interesting, as it essentially rejects classical forms of strategic planning (goal setting, desired pathways, perseverance) in favour of a more opportunistic approach (information gathering, preparing for opportunity, recognition and action) suited to shifting environments. Duggan argues that the uncertainty inherent in the future makes it impossible for us to predict future opportunities, hence a better strategy (than focusing on goals and perseverence) is to prepare for these unknown opportunities by enabling flashes of insight to to match and opportunity achievement with “a combination of past elements” that can “fill the gap”. This certainly meshes well with the dominant perspective in scenario thinking, which is focused on using structured exploration to seek new opportunities and novel solutions. Note that Duggan doesn’t denigrate the value of perseverence, but does criticise the idea that the directional goal-perservere model is the dominate way that succeess is produced, both descriptively and prescriptively.

To take a quite practical view on this, if you were to accept “strategic intuition” as a core principle for developing strategy in any field, it implies two shifts in organizational and personal priorities:

The first is the need for our memories (both personal and institutional) to hold as much data of relevance to the opportunities we might face as possible – in order for flashes of insight to work, it is not enough that we have a direct link to wikipedia, it needs to be on the shelves of our “intelligent memory”, and in a person, not a database. Duggan refers to this problem in a section on education, where he argues against artificial case studies and teaching people how to think in favour of a more classical approach of rote-learning and studying past experiences in detail. The celebrated and extremely lucid Niall Ferguson would agree with this; at Davos this year he argued passionately that decision-makers should carefully study historical analogies in order better to understand prospects for the future and appropriate responses. This not only implies a shift in education policy, it also reinforces the importance of a good memory and a method of filtering, absorbing and filing potentially useful information from the flood of data we face every day. For my part, I would need to check out programs like SuperMemo (for enhancing memory and aiding absorption) and Evernote and Devonthink (for ordering and filing data) . These are issues ‘upstream’ of strategic insight.

The second priority is the need to appreciate better the challenges of shifting from “flashes of insight” to executing on those opportunities, big or small. After all, a ground-breaking flash of insight (like a better mousetrap) might still take years of development, testing and marketing. And then there is the difficulty of prioritizing other flashes of insight given other commitments – how can you be sure that this flash is valuable enough for you to expend a large amount of energy developing it? When is a new flash of insight nothing more than a costly distraction to what you should be doing? These are the downstream elements and relate to communication, entrepreneurship and, yes, perseverence.

A final element that it might be interesting to consider is the link between strategic intuition and decision-making. As Duggan describes it, strategic intuition is a problem-solving technique, concerned with generating innovative options and identifying new opportunities and solutions. He contrasts this to “expert intuition”, which is Gladwell’s concept in Blink – where an expert can almost instantaneously come to conclusions in a complex situation thanks to highly developed pattern-recognition. Expert intuition, therefore, operates more on the ability to choose between relatively familiar options based on rapid data interpretation thanks to a developed expertise, while strategic intuition is more about generating new options in less familiar circumstances. As Duggan points out, the two may conflict – your expert intuition may already suggest a well-worn and reliable option as optimal, when strategic intuition could help generate entirely new approaches to the problem.

As I said, I need to read the book more closely to appreciate what I’m sure are some of the finer details of Duggan’s argument, but given my prospensity to be struck with ideas at odd moments in combination with novel sources, I think there’s definitely something in this. Now to start solving for the upstream and downstream limitations of the concept!



  1. Good initial review. Personally I loved the book and found it a great read as well as a challenge to enact in practice (especially in your first implied shift – “the need for our memories to hold as much data of relevance to the opportunities we might face as possible”), and will interested to read your upstream and downstream responses.

  2. Thanks Gordon. I’ll definitely try to read it closely, but I really think it might be worthwhile investigating some of those techniques to improve memory. Did you read the Wozniak article on Wired?

  3. […] the strategy model presented by William Duggan in Strategic Intuition (see my previous post here). In particular I’ve been mulling over how Duggan’s interesting “flash of […]

  4. […] the strategy model presented by William Duggan in Strategic Intuition (see my previous post here). In particular I’ve been mulling over how Duggan’s interesting “flash of […]

  5. […] stuff – and relevant for those strategic intuition […]

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