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Taking advantage of strategic intuition

By Jan Vincent S. Ong |

Business slumps are sometimes caused by the inability of enterprises to keep pace with change, and many a company often plays a game of chess against time to find the right market opportunities. When an easy solution to an unfamiliar or complicated problem is not forthcoming, they throw up their hands and won’t trust their gut feel either for a breakout solution. This explains why some companies can sometimes boom one day and go bust the next, clueless as to what to do with the situation confronting them.

Dr. William Duggan, a business strategy guru from the Columbia University Business School, aims to change all that by showing entrepreneurs how to take out the guesswork from their decision-making. His main focus is developing a thought process that he had dubbed as “strategic intuition,” or how to readily think smart in any situation. It is, in a nutshell, a way of thinking prudently before taking action.

The outcome that strategic intuition seeks is understanding, and the creative spark that Prof. Duggan calls the “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment a true  breakthrough solution or idea. He explains the thought process in his book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement.



A reading of the book and an interview with Prof. Duggan, tended to indicate that strategic intuition is still in its infancy. This seems to be the reason why he is very careful not to provide a step-by-step guide for HR on strategic intuition; instead, he tells various success stories and interjects into them the different concepts that he had incorporated into his idea. For instance, he offers examples of the use of strategic intuition from the French Revolution, from Eastern philosophies, and from the current IT revolution.

Simply put, says Duggan, strategic intuition is not expert intuition based on technical work experience but rather a result brought about by elements from one’s immediate environment. He cites the great French General Napoleon Bonaparte as an example. He argues that the then inexperienced general—he had almost zero war experience—was able to conquer the port of Toulon in France because of his extensive knowledge of war history and maps, not because of personal battlefield expertise.

According to Duggan, the general requirements for achieving the creative spark are these: vicarious learning, presence of mind, the flash of insight, and resolution.


For instance, if you are trying to reposition your product from adult market to teen market, your first steps should be to study teenage lifestyles, to examine the brands aimed at that market, and to leaf through trade magazines. You should then clear up your mind, set up a concrete goal, and pick up ideas from your research.

These elements of the process should provide you with a clear path to tread on and a more reliable creative spark. Ultimately, however, you need to have the resolve to stick to your entrepreneurial epiphany or flash of intuition—much like Steve Jobs who, it is said, first the saw the personal computer in his head and then relentlessly worked to turn it into reality.

It should be kept in mind, though, that strategic intuition is largely useful only for dealing with new and uncharted deadlocks; otherwise, it is wise to use expert intuition. As an entrepreneur, in fact, you should be like a cat burglar faced with a time-dependent lock combination to a safe—you must not panic so you can clear your head for clues to be found in the surrounding area. You can remain calm because you know that the challenge before you has been faced by others before. You don’t reinvent the wheel. This, when confronted with a seemingly intractable business problem, you look for people or companies that have successfully dealt with stumbling blocks similar to yours. Indeed, Duggan attributes the strategic intuition solution to Buddhist monks who first clear their mind through meditation and are then able to find breakthroughs to their day-to-day stumbling blocks with less effort.

Leaders and HR practitioners can find the strategic intuition process useful for brainstorming meetings that require innovation. By giving employees a clear and brief agenda a day before the meeting, they can prep the employees for the process. During the meeting itself, they can then give the participants a sheet of paper where they can write down possible solutions and where they got them. This exercise should greatly help steer the brainstorming meeting towards a clear direction and an amalgamated answer.

If time permits, strategic intuition could be developed through exercises that involve mixing nonrelated variables to find solutions. This is what Duggan refers to as the Dewey system or “progressive learning,” where students are fed variables gradually and are asked to creatively combine them.

Duggan says, though, that there is an aspect of strategic intuition that cannot be taught and is dependent on the entrepreneur’s personal brilliance: seeing true flashes of insight and using them to resolve the problem. This requires the art of knowing when to heed or when to disregard a flash of insight. But finally, it is the entrepreneur’s job as a leader to pursue till the very end the opportunities revealed by strategic intuition. Otherwise, the company risks being great at finding answers but terribly poor at successfully putting those answers into fruition.


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