Inspiration for Transformational Problem Solving

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Decision Making, Strategic Intuition, Vision


In an earlier article I talked about Strategic Intuition, the source of truly transformational business solutions. Strategic Intuition may seem like voodoo, or at least spooky science, but every wildly successful entrepreneur and senior executive I’ve ever known has mastered it.

We just don’t talk about it much.

Perhaps that’s changing. Prominent business thought leaders are beginning to write about it. People like Peter Senge, MIT professor, founding Chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, and author of Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future; and William Duggan, Columbia Business School professor, frequent lecturer at the U.S. Army War College, and author of Strategic Intuition. Neuroscience is beginning to shed light on what may be happening during that leap into the unknown.

Now that we’re beginning to understand how it works, Strategic Intuition is a transformational problem solving art that can be taught. And, as one of Duggan’s students wrote, “There are not that many classes that have ‘changed my life.’ However, your class [on strategic intuition] stands out in my mind as a class that will profoundly affect not only my career, but the way I lead my daily life.”

The Cogent Executive’s last two articles explored the second step of strategic intuition, requiring opening your mind, and setting aside preconceived assumptions and beliefs:

Creative Thinking for Transformational Problem Solving

Some Rocks Float: Cracking the Code of Transformational Problem Solving

This week’s article examines the third and most mysterious step of all, the Aha! Moment, or Coup d’Oeil. While we may occasionally experience flashes of insight in the shower or while stuck in traffic, we can cultivate the conditions for them so that they happen, if not on demand, at least much more often.

The Coup d’Oeil requires a prepared mind. As Duggan describes in his book on Strategic Intuition, transformational problem solvers from Napoleon to Picasso to Jobs had a deep and broad knowledge of their areas of expertise. When confronted with a problem they accessed a vast array of possible solutions employed by their predecessors.

The Coup d’Oeil requires an open mind. Unlike incremental improvement, Coup d’Oeil is the inspirational moment when a whole new possibility opens up, often from the conjunction of two seemingly disparate disciplines. Picasso’s early experimentation in his painting traces back to his fascination with primitive African sculpture.

The Coup d’Oeil itself springs not from the conscious mind, but from the subconscious. The solution has been gestating underground, so to speak, and thrusts itself unexpectedly into consciousness. The reason your greatest inspirations visit you in the shower is that the rest of the day you’re far too busy planning and plotting and doing for such insights to push their way through.

Walt Disney, founder of one of the greatest entertainment empires of all time, acknowledges that it all started with a mouse named Mickey, who “…popped out of my mind and onto a drawing pad…on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner.”

We are addicted to thinking, to words, to “figuring it out.” That little voice in our head has been with us non-stop from such an early age that most of us never realize a quiet mind is possible. And the Coup d’Oeil comes in the space between two thoughts. To the still mind.

Recently I’ve been interviewing business leaders about the role of intuitive inspiration in their careers, and their stories have a consistent refrain: they all make space for contemplation in their lives. They have learned sooner than the rest of us that, “Like the space in a Japanese painting, the time in which nothing happens also has its purpose.” Many meditate. Some go for long walks, or do yoga, or practice a musical instrument, or paint, or garden. The point is, they all deliberately set aside time for stepping out of the rational, linear, chatterbox, verbal mind.

And that is when inspiration whispers to them.

Another practice many of them use is Dream Incubation. We all dream, even though we may not often remember our dreams. The tendency to dream about whatever you concentrate on intently just before sleep can be harnessed for practical problem solving. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the literary classic Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, writes one of the most detailed autobiographical descriptions available of how he learned to turn to his dreams for storytelling ideas. Speaking of himself in the third person, he tells us about the assistance he received from what he called his “Brownies” or little people:

“When the bank begins to send letters and the butcher to linger at the back gate, he sets to belabouring his brains after a story, for that is his readiest money-winner; and, behold! at once the little people begin to bestir themselves in the same quest, and labour all night long, and all night long set before him truncheons of tales upon their lighted theatre.”

This may sound like less of a leap for a novelist than for the rest of us, but visionary architect Michael Reynolds describes how a dream inspired him to design the Nautilus Earthship, a gracefully spiraling living space operating completely off the grid, and Dmitri Mendeleev credits a dream with helping him crack the code of chemical properties leading to the development of the periodic table.

You can do this too.

Are you interested in how you can harness transformational problem solving more often in your life? Go to my contact page and request a get acquainted call to see if working together is right for you.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Inspiration for Transformational Problem Solving