Strategic Intuition

Napoleon Strategic ThinkingBiographers of Napoleon Bonaparte talk about his ability to size up a situation with a single coup d’oeil, (pronounced koo-DOY), meaning “a stroke of the eye” or “glance.”  Napoleon was so knowledgeable about his strategic situation—the landscape, the enemy, available technology, similar situations from the past—that he could understand and respond quickly to ever-changing circumstances.

To become a master strategist, you must develop strategic intuition.  Consider Warren Buffett’s masterful ability to see investment gems lying unnoticed in a huge pool of possibilities…. Or Steve Jobs’ ability to rightly intuit the features and qualities of technology that will bring magic to consumers…  Or Oprah Winfrey’s ability to discern what her viewers want to experience and learn about…  In the end, wisdom on this scale cannot be gained through analytical tools or logic… it is a matter of knowing without knowing how you know.

To study the dynamics of decision-making under pressure, Gary Klein lived with firefighters and other emergency or quick-response personnel.  His objective was to understand how people make decisions in the most hectic of moments.   In his book Sources of Power, he concludes that the keys to good spontaneous decision-making are entirely different than what matters when one ponders decisions with time available for analysis and deliberation.   The best decision-makers in chaotic “fog of war” conditions seem able to call on intuition – knowing what to do without knowing why or how they know.

For example, Klein tells the story of one fire captain who entered a burning house, got an odd feeling that something was amiss, and ordered his firefighters out of the structure seconds before it collapsed.  It turned out the source of the fire was in a basement that they did not know was there.  Something about the situation just felt wrong to the captain, and he acted on his intuition, saving the lives of his men.  Intuition, Klein says, is recognizing complex patterns “without knowing how we do the recognizing.”

napoleon plotting strategy with mapPattern recognition, by the way, is a key indicator of whether someone has begun to develop a “Zen” way of knowing about his or her field of expertise.  Master chess players, for example, can take a brief glance at the pieces configured on a chess board, turn around, and accurately recreate the placement of all the pieces on another board.  The rest of us, at best, can remember where one or two pieces are placed.  The difference is that the chess masters look at the board and see a pattern – a story – that they can hold in memory and recall later.  To recreate the board, they just put the pieces into place in order to tell the same story.  This is the basis of intuition.  While the word conveys a bit of magic or mysticism, psychologists say that intuitive knowledge is the result of repeated experience.  The chess master has seen countless configurations on chess boards and gradually learns to see them as a whole experience, pattern of story.  To the master, the pieces are just elements of something larger.  In like manner, a quarterback who intuits where to find the open man or just seems to sense that it is time to get rid of the ball as he’s approached from behind, has achieved masters level pattern recognition.

Psychologist sometimes call the things that we know intuitively “tacit knowege.”  And we can only use langauge to speak about things that are “explicit.”  Psychologist Bill Snyder says that “Unless we can distinguish between tacit and explicit knowl­edge, we are likely to pay inordinate attention to explicit knowledge and underesti­mate the prevalence and value of tacit knowledge.”

Tacit knowl­edge refers to knowledge that one has but cannot explain.  In coprorate settings, we distinguish between “codifiable” knowledge that can be written down or documented in some way, and non-codifiable knowledge that you can only learn from experience.  This kind of knowledge includes intuitions, values, and basic assumptions  as well as “artistry” or Zen mastery.  Explicit knowl­edge involves knowledge that can be explained and codified.  For example, facts, theories, recipes, standards, and procedures are all examples of explicit knowledge.  It is important to distinguish tacit and explicit knowledge because research indicates that more than half of the knowledge in organizations is tacit.”

How to Develop Strategic Intuition. As Malcolm Gladwell has shown in Outliers, mastery of a field generally takes 10,000 hours of concentration in that knowledge domain. With time and practice, the individual begins learns to recognize patterns where others don’t and begin to recognize gaps in knowledge and begin to make new connections in order to solve or fill in these gaps.  Warren Buffet certainly put the time in to gain his legendary intuition about the world of investments.

Gaining napoleon’s coup d’oeil it – comes from a mix of aptitude and hard, constant, persistent work.

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