Exploring Strategic Intuition

An Interview with William Duggan, author of Strategic Intuition
By Vern Burkhardt and Graham Duncan
Brain science tells us there are three kinds of intuition; ordinary, expert and strategic. Ordinary intuition is just a feeling, a gut instinct. Expert intuition is “a form of rapid thinking where you jump to a conclusion when you recognize something familiar”, as a professional engineer might do in his daily practice. The third kind, strategic intuition, is “thinking, not feeling. A flash of insight cuts through the fog of your mind with a clear, shining thought”. It's not fast, like expert intuition, it's slow and occurs in new situations where your best ideas are needed.

William DugganCreative thinking, innovative thinking, and strategic thinking are important in the modern world. All these kinds of thinking happen through flashes of insight—something William Duggan calls strategic intuition. Duggan’s latest book, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, shows how strategic intuition lies at the heart of achievements throughout history—in scientific and computer revolutions, the civil rights movement, and even in micro-finance in poor countries.

Behind every significant advance is a turning point where someone has a useful idea that changes the path, changes the field or starts a new one. Strategic Intuition describes what happens in the mind of whoever has that idea.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): As a society we know we can’t predict what opportunities will arise, when breakthroughs in science, medicine or any other field, will occur. Certainly we can’t predict the course of human progress. In your book you indicate that the use of strategic intuition, flashes of insight, tells the hidden story of human achievement. The examples you provide—Bill Gates, Copernicus, Martin Luther King, Google—illustrate how flashes of insight helped carve the path of human history. That said, why is strategic intuition not more recognized as an important contributor in human progress?

William Duggan: I think people have always recognized it, but in pieces: “It was just my intuition”, “I never predicted this is what I would do,” “We discovered it by accident,” “We just connected the dots.” What I’ve done is put the pieces together. Many people say to me after reading the book, “I agree with you. It’s what I’ve always thought.” I take that as the highest compliment. True to the idea, I’ve said nothing new.

VB: You credit Carl von Clausewitz with being the father of strategic intuition—he defined strategic intuition as a four step process. Those steps are: awareness of history; presence of mind; the flash of insight itself; and resolution. As a Prussian Army Officer von Clausewitz was a military strategist. Since the time of von Clausewitz has strategic intuition taken hold in other endeavors such as business, education, or social sciences in the way it has in the military world where Napoleon, Patton and others used it to great success?

William Duggan: Von Clausewitz didn’t propose anything new; he just described how Napoleon succeeded. And Napoleon succeeded by studying past battles. In practice, human achievement has relied on strategic intuition since the dawn of history—in all fields of endeavor. My first book on the subject, Napoleon’s Glance, gives several lengthy examples from all over the world, over many centuries. Von Clausewitz was just the first to try to describe strategic intuition in a formal way, although as pure philosophy you can trace it back to Tao Te Ching of ancient China.

VB: In your example about Google, you indicate that in the early days the founders of Google offered to sell their patent to AltaVista. The people who ran AltaVista were not receptive to outside technology, they had a “not invented here” attitude. You point out that strategic intuition is the opposite of “not invented here”, that it is important to adopt the attitude of “take from everywhere”. Is this the future of business?

William Duggan: No one can predict the future of business or anything else. Certainly “take from everywhere” seems to have a better track record than “invent it all yourself.” It’s a recommendation, not a prediction.

VB: What are the most important personality traits of those famous individuals described in your book who have used strategic intuition to make a difference in the world?

William Duggan: The people I studied seem to have every personality type you can think of. There’s no hard science behind the whole idea of personality types. Strategic intuition is not a trait—it’s a skill you can learn. Anyone can learn it.

VB: You cite examples of how strategic intuition has had profound impacts on the military, in business, education and in several other fields but you only cite one example from government—when John F. Kennedy “shoots for moon”. Are governments too large and cumbersome to support the capacity for strategic intuition? And wouldn't most governments benefit from strategic intuition in this ever more complex world?

William Duggan: In Napoleon’s Glance there’s a chapter on Fukuzawa Yukichi, who brought strategic intuition to all levels of Japanese government in the late nineteenth century. But overall you’re right, not because governments are too large or cumbersome but because of their basic governance. The managers don’t set the goals. For strategic intuition, you have to be able to change goals as needed, and that’s very difficult when your whole purpose is to execute what higher powers tell you to do. Even a small government has this problem. There are plenty of good examples, and certainly any human endeavor can benefit from strategic intuition.

VB: There is much support in the business world for strategic planning where locking in on an objective and then chasing it down are seen as sound business practice. If one knows one's business well, it’s easy to fall prey to over-confidence in establishing that objective. Napoleon, on the other hand, passed up more battles than he fought, looking only for those he could win. This quote from Napoleon is most illustrative, “I had few really definite ideas, and the reason for this was that instead of obstinately seeking to control circumstances, I obeyed them.” In other words, to reach your goal you must give up your objectives. What are some of the key lessons business leaders could learn, the benefits they could realize if they adopted the methodology of strategic intuition?

William Duggan: The key lesson is that you should only set a goal once you see at least a partial way to get there. And you can only see that “way” by combining elements of the puzzle that others have solved before you to some degree. Otherwise it’s pie in the sky, and the people who have to implement your strategy have no idea how to do it or worse, know it can’t be done. This happens all the time especially in big companies.

On the other hand, the top people who set the goals often do have strategic intuition and do see the elements they combine to get there. But when they communicate with their employees they just cite the goal, not the elements they combined to set the goals. If you tell people what you saw and why you think it’s a worthy and achievable goal, then they can “see” it too.

VB: Our best ideas come to us in a variety of circumstances—in the shower, on the drive to work, as we wake in the morning, and so on. Beyond that idea moment most of us give little thought to how our thoughts come about. Your work and research and the evolution of neuroscience helps to explain how strategic intuition works. Would you explain how intelligent memory makes intuition the creative part of thoughts?

William Duggan: Your brain is the greatest inventory system on earth. You take things in, break them down, and put them on shelves in your brain. When new things come in, your brain does a search to see what might fit together. That search might take weeks, and it works best when your mind is at rest.

VB: Recent examples of the American dream such as YouTube and Yahoo contribute to the belief it is possible to do anything if you work hard enough. Hard work may be a critical component of success but the reality is that many things must come together. If you were advising CEOs of major corporations, what advice would you give them about the process of creating ideas for new products?

William Duggan: The first thing I’d say is that you might not need a new product. You might need a new service. Or a new way of organizing your company. Or a new way of financing it.

Innovation covers everything, not just new products. Don’t jump to conclusions before you have an idea—that is, don’t set your goal first. The second thing I’d say is use the method from the book, in chapters 8 and 9, to make strategic intuition an ordinary part of your internal procedures, rather than something that cuts against your procedures.

VB: Your website has a number of information elements including a video in which you provide an explanation of strategic intuition. What further plans do you have for content on the website?

William Duggan: I have no plans for the website. I don’t have any ideas. I welcome ideas from anyone else, though.

VB: What are the implications for a world with increasing pollution and densely populated cities if we continually skip over the details of how one set of ideas gave way to another?

William Duggan: Good question. I haven’t studied that one. Offhand I would only say that the same thing that applies in other fields would likely apply here as well.

VB: The basic steps in today’s business world include establishing an objective, building a plan, and executing that plan. You believe this approach often lacks one important component—strategic intuition. Are businesses losing out on significant opportunities by not recognizing the important role of strategic intuition?

William Duggan: It all comes back to establishing that objective. If you don’t do it by strategic intuition, how do you do it?

Conventional methods of strategic analysis tell you how to assess your situation—they don’t tell you how to actually come up with a strategic idea. And conventional methods of strategic planning start with a goal. They don’t tell you how to set a goal in the first place. What’s missing is the middle, between strategic analysis and strategic planning—how do you actually get an idea for what your goal should be? Strategic intuition is the only answer I’ve ever seen. And remember, I didn’t invent it. I discovered it, lying in plain sight in the scholarship of various fields and in how successful strategy actually happened.

VB: Bringing people who work on diverse projects together to design something new seems at first glance chaotic and unpredictable. Do you recommend following a process that is open ended and where all options are still at play?

William Duggan: Strategic intuition is not about many options. It’s about many sources. Do those sources lead to unpredictable results? Of course they do. All innovation takes you in unpredictable directions, by definition. Everyone’s trying to innovate about X when most innovations take you off course, to Y.

Strategic intuition is less chaotic than conventional brainstorming, where you’re supposed to throw out any idea that pops into your head. That’s chaos. Strategic intuition is very conservative. An idea is a good one only if it has strong precedents in previous elements.

VB: You teach about strategic intuition. What are the three or four key messages you give graduate students and executives?

William Duggan: They’re the same messages as we have been talking about. And the same to corporate audiences. It’s always the same message, to everyone.

VB: One of the key elements of strategic intuition is the ability to draw on examples from history. For young people with limited experience who are looking for new ways to be innovative, can you tell us how strategic intuition could help them?

William Duggan: You confuse “history” and “experience.” Napoleon won his first battle at the age of 24 with zero previous military experience. Yet he had studied all the past battles of history, and so had plenty of examples to draw from.

VB: What other projects are you currently working on?

William Duggan: I’m trying to figure out how to reach all possible audiences, with all possible media. If any of your audience has any ideas, I’m eager to hear them.

VB: Are there any books or articles related to Strategic Intuition or other types of thinking that you would recommend?

William Duggan: My two previous books, Napoleon’s Glance and The Art of What Works. For the neuroscience, try Intelligent Memory by Barry Gordon and Lisa Berger. For product innovation, try How Breakthroughs Happen by Andrew Hargadon. For philosophy, try Pragmatism by William James, the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, and The Art of War by Sun Tzu.


William Duggan tells us about his book that, “In all the chapters not a single idea is my own. I borrowed them all. But the combination is new.” This is strategic intuition in action.

Dr. William Duggan received BA, MA, and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. He is an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School where he teaches strategic intuition in graduate and executive courses. Duggan has 20 years experience as a strategy advisor and consultant. He is the author of The Art of What Works: How Success Really Happens, Napoleon’s Glance: The Secret of Strategy, and Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement.

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