Looking for intuition in a book wrapped around a single idea


BOOK REVIEW: THE BOOKSHELF behind my desk groans with the weight of dusty strategy books with unbroken spines. Five Forces, Core Competencies, Built to Last, The Learning Organisation, In Search of Excellence.

Does the world of corporate strategy really need another oracle? What could anyone possibly add to the well-intentioned, but ultimately useless smorgasbord of knowledge on the topic of strategy?

Does any middle manager really want to get another book through the inter-office mail from the chief executive with a compliments slip suggesting that he or she should read this?

But, you can't blame someone for trying. Every academic in the field of strategy has to add his or her angle to the mix.

Duggan, a professor at Columbia University, has his angle and it is a pretty good and simple one. Good ideas come to us as flashes of insight, often when we don't expect them.

We all know that great business ideas don't come from a corporate brainstorming session in which a bunch of emotionally repressed middle managers tap into their creative selves. Rather they come as flashes of insights, typically to someone close to the top of the organisation or an entrepreneur, who then acts on the insight quickly.

Duggan uses the tried and trusted (and timeworn) examples of Bill Gates and the first PC operating system, the Google boys and the Pagerank system and Steve Jobs and the graphical user interface. In none of these cases was the idea the result of rocket science. Each just connected the dots of what was going on in the world and then moved quickly to capture the opportunity.

A breakthrough is a bend in the road rather than a leap in progress. Most strategic insights usually hide in plain view.

Since the concept of strategy spread from the military to business and the rest of society in the late 19th century, every organisation now has a strategy. Aer Lingus, the Girl Scouts, the Department of Health, a law firm - each organisation has a strategy. Most of the strategy tools available to business today are great at analysing our strategy in the light of our industry and competitors; Porter's five forces is the classic example. But these tools don't tell us how to come up with a strategic idea. Strategic Intuition aims to fill this gap. There is something in this for all of us. Who of us has not looked at the pimply youths who set up Facebook or YouTube or Bebo in recent years and said: "I could have done that".

Closer to home, we can all see that Michael O'Leary had strategic intuition in relation to the low-cost airline model in Europe. Clearly, we would all benefit by a lot more strategic intuition.

Like most business books, Strategic Intuition is a book wrapped around a single idea - that at the core of a successful innovation or business strategy is a strategic intuition. Duggan does us two favours compared to the average business book.

First, it is one finger thick rather than the usual painful two fingers. Thus it is more likely to be read to the end. Second, he has the eclectic mind of a Jared Diamond. He traces the history of strategic intuition through neuroscience, Copernicus, on the spot decision-making by firemen, Napoleon and his coups d'oeil, Picasso and Buddha on his path to enlightenment.

One thing the book fails to do is demystify how to develop strategic intuition - how to spot the next great internet or retail concepts before everyone else. So if you are sitting there in the disheartened ranks of people working in a multinational or some other career and are looking for some blinding insights that will lead you on the road to entrepreneurship or help you to rediscover your authentic self, this is not the place to start. Better to hit the refresh button on your e-mail, get another cappuccino, gaze out the window and wait for enlightenment. Who knows, it might work.

Dermot Berkery is a partner with Delta Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage businesses.

Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievementby William Duggan; Columbia University Press; 2008.