Oct. 9, 2007
Professor Explores How “Aha!” Really Happens
Special from The Record
Professor William Duggan
In 2001, long after he graduated from Columbia – first with a B.A. in 1974 and then with a Ph.D. in economic history in 1985, and no plans to become an academic – William Duggan returned to the University to work on an idea he had just discovered, about how people make successful decisions.
That work has led to one of the business school’s most popular courses, “Napoleon’s Glance: The Art of Strategic Intuition,” taught each spring by Duggan, (now an associate professor). This fall, the course has spawned a book, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, the first book to be published by the Columbia Business School new imprint of Columbia University Press.
Successful people make decisions using strategic insight, which Duggan says involves selectively combining past discoveries or elements from previously successful decisions to make something creative. “To solve any problem, the most important question you can ask is, ‘Has anyone, anywhere in the world, ever made any progress in solving a piece of the problem?’ If that is not your first question, you are either going to reinvent the wheel or make mistakes other people have made,” says Duggan.
Strategic Intuition is the new imprint’s first book, but not Duggan’s: His output includes two novels written while in Africa in the 1980s, where he worked for the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Ford Foundation, as well as two other books on strategy. But it is likely to be his most successful, given the popularity of books on management. And that’s despite the fact that, according to Duggan, “The only new thing in the book is the title.”
Duggan is being a bit coy; he means to illustrate one of his book’s main points, that there are no new ideas in the world, just new ways of putting ideas together. As he explains it, successful decision-makers study problems that arise in other fields and how people have solved those problems (or pieces of them), and then combine those solutions into new ones.
“Great ideas bring together diverse elements from the past,” says Duggan. In his book, as in his course, Duggan gives examples of strategic intuition in the decision-making of historical figures. Napoleon used the tactics of old generals in new permutations to design strategies for his military campaigns; Picasso combined the styles of Matisse and African sculpture in Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, the modern painting that made him famous; and Bill Gates put together the BASIC computer language and the first mass market minicomputer, neither of which he invented, to create the company that would eventually became Microsoft Corp.
Duggan is careful to distinguish strategic intuition from ordinary intuition, which is really just a gut feeling, he says. Nor is it the same as expert intuition, the process by which a person with experience in a field quickly recognizes a situation as similar to one that has occurred before. (Expert intuition was the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink).
As Duggan explains the workings of strategic intuition, “When you’re trying to solve a problem, your mind breaks down the situation into pieces, and it looks on the shelves of your mind for solutions to those pieces. The more things you have read and seen, the more things there are on those shelves.” In developing his theory, Duggan turned to the work of Eric Kandel, a Columbia professor of biology, biochemistry and psychiatry, and a Nobel laureate, who has written about “intelligent memory.”
According to Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Business School, Duggan’s work “has enormous implications for the teaching of strategy.”
– Written by Fred A. Bernstein. Photograph by Eileen Barroso.