Strategic Intuition and Expertise

On Monday night, I went to a talk by William Duggan, a Columbia business school professor who studies strategy, on a concept that he calls strategic intuition. Duggan has written a book on the subject, and has set up a blog to discuss the concept.

Duggan started by discussing the differences between expert intuition and strategic intuition. Expert intuition is built up by practice and familiarity with situations, of the sort described by Gary Klein in Sources of Power or Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Expert intuition is using one’s built-up experience to instantly and unconsciously recognize the right thing to do in a familiar situation or its variants.

Duggan then differentiated strategic intuition by explaining that strategic intuition is the ability to recombine previous ideas into a wholly new pattern to address new situations. He uses von Clausewitz’s strategic primer, On War, to describe the process:

Clausewitz gives us four steps. First, you take in “examples from history” throughout your life and put them on the shelves of your brain. Study can help, by putting more there. Second comes “presence of mind,” where you free your brain of all preconceptions about what problem you’re solving and what solution might work. Third comes the flash of insight itself. Clausewitz called it coup d’oeil, which is French for “glance.” In a flash, a new combination of examples from history fly off the shelves of your brain and connect. Fourth comes “resolution,” or determination, where you not only say to yourself, “I see!”, but also, “I’ll do it!”

The rest of Duggan’s talk was describing different examples of strategic intuition, such as Napoleon’s strategy in a critical battle. He pointed out that none of these people invented something new – they just recombined previous elements in new ways. For instance, he described the Google guys as combining data mining techniques from their academic research, AltaVista’s search crawling, the idea of academic citations used as a ranking method, and Overture’s ad placement. Duggan gleefully used T.S. Eliot’s quote “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal” to illustrate the value of looking out into the world to find the missing piece that might make all the difference.

I like the strategic intuition concept in general. I’ve experienced that flash of insight a few times; as I describe in my cognitive subroutines post, “I had one of those moments where I connected a bunch of ideas, and synapses lit up”. Strategic intuition also appeals to me in that it provides a useful role for a generalist; specialists excel at expert intuition, but only generalists can bring the wide-ranging set of ideas and freedom from preconceptions that are necessary for strategic intuition in Duggan’s model.

I am a bit skeptical of how well supported this model is. He claims it’s based off the intelligent memory hypothesis of how the brain works, which I assume is what is described by Hawkins in On Intelligence. I see how that would apply to expert intuition, which builds in common responses at lower layers of the neocortex, but it would seem to fall short in strategic intuition. This may be answered in his book, so I may have to pick that up at some point (after I’ve finished the ten books lying on my floor in various stages of completion).

I’m also skeptical of Duggan’s contention that this primarily happens in the mind of one person. He started the talk by asking people where they got their good ideas, and got answers like “in the shower”, “while running”, and “late at night” and used those answers to scoff at the value of typical group brainstorming sessions. I find this interesting, because I think by talking, and often get great ideas in conversation with others. If gathering a bunch of ideas into one’s brain is advantageous for strategic intuition, it would seem to be even better to combine the ideas across two or more brains. Thinking by myself often gets me stuck in ruts that I can’t escape (which makes me unable to achieve the “presence of mind” Duggan cites as being key), and talking to somebody else breaks me out of those ruts. It seemed like Duggan undervalues the role that conversation with others can play in strategic intuition (again, perhaps something he covers more in the book). I think this is one of the roles that a generalist plays – being able to combine ideas from multiple people to create flashes of insight that could not be conceived from within any one person.

Duggan’s concept of strategic intuition does help to answer a question I’ve been struggling with since watching a Malcolm Gladwell talk about what constitutes genius. In that talk, Gladwell differentiates between genius and expertise. Genius is just being flat-out smarter and seeing things others can’t. Gladwell uses the example of Michael Ventris, the man who was able to decipher the Linear B language in a couple years in his spare time, after others had spent decades trying to figure it out. Other examples would be people like Einstein or Tesla.

Gladwell contrasts genius with expertise by citing the “10,000 hour rule”, where he claims that it takes 10,000 hours (approximately 3 hours a day for 10 years) of deliberate practice to become a world-class expert at something. Gladwell finds it interesting that talent or genius has almost nothing to do with it – if you have the persistence to put in that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will be an expert. He uses the interesting example of Roger Wiles proving Fermat’s Last Theorem – Wiles wasn’t a genius, and was not particularly gifted among mathematicians, but Gladwell observes that he was probably the first mathematician to just work at Fermat’s Last Theorem for 10,000 hours and he eventually cracked it. Another example would be somebody like Edison with his 99% perspiration quote.

The 10,000 hour rule really dismayed me when I first heard Gladwell speak about it partially because it makes so much sense. It takes that sort of dedicated repetition and practice to build up the unconscious machinery and cognitive subroutines to see beyond the basics. This applies in games like chess and tennis, where dedicated prodigies can become world-class competitors as teenagers (ten years after they start), as well as most careers. And the question that faced me was where I was spending my 10,000 hours.

Duggan’s talk gives me some hope in providing a new framework for the value a generalist might have. Strategic intuition is the ability to bring disparate elements together by seeing the world with a fresh perspective (what von Clausewitz called “presence of mind”), which is precisely the value I hope to achieve as a generalist. Rather than extend the limits of an existing field as an expert might do, it’s the ability to remix fields and combine them in new ways. I wonder if it’s possible to spend my 10,000 hours as a generalist, and, as Seth Godin put it, specialize in being a generalist. I guess we’ll find out.

4 thoughts on “Strategic Intuition and Expertise

  1. Or you could do it this way: What have you already spent 10,000 hours on? You’re a world-class expert at that.

    (Or if it’s only 8,000 hours, you’re only 2k hours away from world-class expertise…)

  2. Interesting post. Funny, though – von Clausewitz’s example is identical to the process I go through while working on a game design, and why I think that game-design-centric education creates a lot of problems – not a broad enough base for “examples from history,” and that it trains people through exposure to preconceptions, not to break from them – though that may simply be the difference between a good education and a bad one.

    The third step often *does* come, for me, while lying in a bathtub or going for a walk with the dog, but it’s a direct result of what you do, which is through interacting with a wide variety of people. For me, there’s some data collecting that happens through discussion, but a lot of creative synthesis happens “in the background,” and it takes a quiet moment for those things to bubble up to the surface.

    On the project I’m currently working on, for instance, there are two “big ideas” at work – one occurred to me in the shower, one while I was walking the dog – both triggered by subtle interactions in a very quiet, solitary environment. In one case, I was twisting the hot water knob with my foot, in the other, Mobius kept walking around me the wrong way, wrapping my feet up in the leash.

    Neither actual example is relevant to the thought directly, but it triggered something that set of what *felt* like a cascade of ideas that resulted in the core concepts for how this game is different than any other game.

    Sorry – digression – but the point is that Duggan may say this is a solitary process because a lot of people have that critical moment in solitary environments, but I’d venture to say that it’s because they’ve collected a lot of information that they can mentally process in the background via interaction with others. So you’re both “right.”

    But this all gets to a different point, and one I’ve been thinking about for a while without coming to any sort of reasonable conclusion:

    How will Google change the way we *think*?

    That is, for many, many years, information retention was a metric of intelligence. If you could remember a bit of trivia, and recite it on demand, you could get a good score on any test in high school, and most tests in college. This was *how* you “became smart.” You built up your “shelf of historical examples” so that you could potentially synthesize them later.

    But Google takes that shelf and makes it bigger than anyone could possibly retain, though it does so by pulling it *out* of your brain, where it’s immediately accessible, and making it one step removed.

    So, what’s smart, then? Or rather, what’s smart *going to be* in the future? Because whether you pull a fact out of your ass and I respond to it immediately, or I respond to it a moment later after consulting my iPhone’s Google Search, as long as I have the *right* fact, does it matter whether I knew it or not?

    But the other side is that you need to be able to know where to get information, how valid that information is, the reliability of the source, blah blah blah – and that comes from having a certain amount of that experience stored in your head where it can immediately be synthesized.

    So, right now, we have a lot of people who retain a “complete set” of information – “expertise” as they call it, so that they can rapidly synthesize new data in their specific field. Or, as a generalist, you might store a smaller set of information in any field, but be able to synthesize those pointers to larger banks of info into something that points at something new.

    But is there, potentially, a subset of information that you need to store internally to give you access to *all* that information *as though it was stored in your own mind*?

    Maybe it’s a different interface into search. Maybe it’s some visual categorization of that information that mimics your own synapses that you can navigate without even thinking about it. Maybe you can literally plug the internet into your brain, filter it for signal/noise, and suddenly have access to many orders of magnitude more information than you could ever have stored in your head, but in a way that you can immediately and intuitively synthesize?

    I dunno – like I said, this line of thinking has never led anywhere, but it keeps popping up again and again.

  3. Is strategy a science or an art? If it is an art, and that’s my belief, then intuition is critical. Intuit into the minds of the individual, of the environment, business or otherwise, and come up with concepts and ideas that have a strong sense of the zeitgeist in them.

    I suppose there are other ways to strategize but in my experience, it’s not so much about empirical evidence to support your strategic hypothesis as it is about the ability to demonstrate the joining of the dots.

    To finetune this skill, it is perhaps important to stay in touch with many things, and indepth associations with a few subjects but the purpose of that information is not so much for the details as it is for the correct contextual flavour.

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