Book Review and Summary: Strategic Intuition

There are certain books that invite a certain mischievous kind of self-referential review. Strategic Intuition is about that key insight which organizes a mass of simmering raw information-input into an elegant decision about a course of action. So the moment I got the book’s theme, the first question that popped into my mind was: does this book contain the strategic intuition about strategic intuition? The answer is no, but this is still a pretty thought-provoking addition to the popular literature on decision-making, and a useful step towards the definitive treatment.

The Central Idea

The central idea in the book is approached via negative definition from two fronts: strategic intuition is not expert intuition, and it is not traditional means-ends reasoning. By expert intuition, Duggan means the sort of extremely fast expert decision-making covered by Gladwell in Blink. The sort of thing made famous by Gary Klein‘s work. Here is the key bit there, from page 61:

“In expert intuition, you draw on what is in your mind about similar situations, while in strategic intuition, you draw together selected elements from different situations in a new combination.”

If you think the distinction is a weak one, you are right. Despite a somewhat plausible neuroscience-based argument, it is not clear that Duggan’s strategic intuition is any more than a slower, more conscious version of Blink-decision-making. There are probably some phenomenological differences at the fMRI level, but it is not clear that there is a conceptual difference. The same thing could be going on, but with less awareness, in Blink decision-making. Fortunately, the other negative definition does make the case that strategic intuition is worthy of independent treatment.

The second mould-wall against which strategic intuition is shaped is the idea of means-ends reasoning, which Duggan equates with traditional Michael Porter style strategic thinking (a fairly reasonable reduction). This argument is a lot smarter, and is made through a comparison of Clausewitz’s On War and the contemporary work of Baron Antoine Jomini, which was more popular at the time. This is probably the best bit in the book. The centerpiece of Duggan’s model is Clausewitz’s notion of coup d’oeil (“strike of the eye”). After introducing his prototypical example (Napolean’s key strategic insight in the siege of Toulon), he explains coup d’oeil:

He [Clausewitz] explains in four steps how coup d’oeil happens: examples from history, presence of mind, the flash of insight itself, and resolution…

  • …[1] You don’t just search the shelves of your own experience — you search out examples from history far and wide…
  • …[2] The second step in coup d’oeil is presence of mind. You clear your mind of all expectations and previous ideas…
  • …[3] The third step is the flash of insight itself. In a free mind selected elements from various past examples come together in a new combination…
  • …[4] The fourth step in coup d’oeil is resolution. This means resolve, determination, will. You not only see what to do: you are also ready to do it. The flash of insight carries with it the force of action that propels you forward.

Duggan contrasts this (which is as close as he gets to a positive definition of “strategic intuition”) with the more procedural and familiar approach of Jomini:

As…Edward Earle tells us, [Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War] “probably did more than any other single book to fix the great sub-divisions of modern military science for good and all and to give them common currency.” Those main subdivisions were strategy, tactics, and logistics…. where Clausewitz gives us strategic intuition, Jomini gives us strategic planning. Jomini tells you to first establish your base of operations, then determine an “objective point,” and then choose lines of operations from the base to that point to move your army along. That makes three basic steps: first you figure out where are (Point A), then you decide where you want to be (Point B), and then you make a plan to get from Point A to Point B.

The story of why Jomini has actually been more influential in shaping modern thinking on strategy right up to Porter, while Clausewitz is better known, is probably worth the price of the book.

Unfortunately though, the Jomini-Clausewitz dichotomy is not resolved. We are left with a weak idea that Jomini worried about objective points while Clausewitz worried about decisive points. This is entertaining, rather like the scene in Dead Poets Society where John Keating (played by Robin Williams) inveighs against the evil, imaginary procedural aesthete, J. Evans Pritchard. Like Williams’ carpe diem catchphrase, Duggan’s coup d’oeil catchphrase is fun, but ultimately inadequate. Poetry is about both right-brained carpe diem and left-brained Pritchardian formulae for evaluating poetic merit. Strategy is both about dutiful Jomini procedure and elegant Napoleanic insight.

That said, Duggan almost manages to capture the elusive notion of strategic intuition. To the extent he fails, it is because all the pieces of the puzzle are simply not in any one person’s head yet. I’ll point out a few pieces that I know of, that belong in the picture in a bit.

The Summary

Let’s do a quick chapter-wise summary:

  • Chapter 1, Flash versus Blink sets the stage by picking out slow-paced conscious decision-making as the object of study and distinguishes it (as I said earlier, in a not-entirely-satisfying way) from ‘blink’ decision-making.
  • Chapter 2, Revolution on Earth, is a workmanlike analysis of the Copernican revolution, viewed largely through a Thomas-Kuhn lens. It serves to provide a good example of the pattern of events that lead up to a strategic intuition, but the chapter seems misplaced, since the prototypical Napoleanic example comes later.
  • Chapter 3, Two Halves of a Brain, is an attempt at neuroscientific justification of his ideas, but is probably the weakest part of the book. There is a nice telling of the story of how the “right-brain-vs.-left-brain” model of the brain evolved into the more complex “mosaic” and “intelligent memory” models of thought dominant today, but the story does little to provide a foundation for what is to come later. The treatment comes close to being a case of what Steven Johnson has called the neuro-map fallacy, but that is a problem with the neuroscience Duggan relies on, rather than his own failing (here is the sort of statement that the book relies on: “Intelligent Memory… is like connecting dots to form a picture. The dots are pieces or ideas, the lines between them are your connections or associations. The lines can coalesce into larger fragments, and these fragments can merge to form a whole thought…. That’s what happens when ideas or concepts ‘pop’ into your mind.” — only the highly empiricist world of neuro-anatomy would consider that a conceptually-sound model)
  • Chapter 4, Lieutenant M Saves Your Life, reviews in depth Klein’s model of high-speed tactical decision-making (i.e. the Blink stuff), and attempts to synthesize psychological models of styles of thinking with the neuro-anatomy history lessons of Chapter 4. It sort of works.
  • Chapter 5, The Corsican Conquers Europe, is the heart and soul of the book, and makes for absorbing reading. If you want to sample the book at Barnes and Noble, read this chapter. It stands well by itself, and works pretty well as a summary of the book’s main ideas.
  • Chapter 6, Warrior Buddha, is mildly embarrassing. It bills itself as a whirlwind tour of Eastern thought, and rapidly covers the Bhagavad Gita, Taoism, Buddhism and Zen. The treatment is shallow, though the fundamental connections Duggan makes (with Clausewitz’s coup d’oeil) are tolerably sound, but not particularly profound. This Chapter comes close to what Howard Gardner calls “lumping”— a bunch of weak connections posing as genuine synthesis.
  • Chapters 7, 8 and 9 provide treatments of the “usual suspect” anecdotes from business strategy, social entrepreneurship and art from the “strategic intuition” point of view. The treatments are again workmanlike, but because of the familiarity of the examples (Microsoft, Google, PARC, Grameen bank…), your eyes sort of glaze over. I wish business book writers would come up with a bunch of non-standard examples.
  • Chapters 10 and 11 are the mandatory chapters on education and how we might “teach” strategic intuition. There are some interesting tidbits here, since Duggan actually teaches the material behind this book as a course at Columbia.

The Verdict

By my own algorithm for evaluating business books, Strategic Intuition has two flaws: conceptual inadequacy and anecdotalism. But overall, these flaws are forgivable. The domain simply hasn’t matured to the point where a definitive treatment is possible. Fortunately, it does not pretend to be the last word on the subject, so you can read it and extract significant value.

Towards the Strategic Intution about Strategic Intuition

Regular readers of this site know that I’ve dealt with the themes of this book in several previous pieces including:

These pieces were very tough for me to write, and yet they ended up not being my best-written pieces. That’s one reason I am overall positive about Duggan’s book. This topic is simply very difficult to tame. But based on my own approach to a more satisfying synthesis, the following pieces are among those missing:

  • A sound incorporation of notions of metaphor and narrative in the model of strategic intuition (strategic intuition is rather like Hercule Poirot finding the key clue in an Agatha Christie novel, and the similarity is not accidental).
  • A sound foundational analysis of the very concept of strategy, which I attempted in the first of my articles listed above. It is intuition involving this entity that we are talking about, so it stands to reason the entity in itself needs some scrutiny.
  • A very heavy dose of mathematics is a clearly missing ingredient. Among the things needed are ideas about computational (NP) complexity and Kolmogorov Complexity (which shed light on what turns dull Jomini plans into smart Napoleanic shortcuts).
  • At least a solid contextualization against decision science: control theory, operations research, AI planning, statistical decision theory, heuristic (in the behavioral economics and Herbert Simon sense)

It’s a long road of heavy-lift synthesis ahead before the notion of strategic intuition is captured with the sort of elegant precision that we are looking for — the strategic intuition about strategic intuition. But at least we’re moving along, and not stalled.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter