Highly successful business leaders and entrepreneurs have mastered it but have no idea how to teach it. To be brilliant at what you do, you need it too.
Some call it a gut feeling. Others “just know,” and one boss I know refers to it as his “bullshit detector.” A friend relies on her “Spidey Sense,” that ability to divine – and especially feel – a driving vision for yourself and others. When the data can’t show you which way to go, strategic intuition will tell you and help you be at peace with your decision.
In his groundbreaking book Strategic Intuition, Columbia Business School professor William Duggan distinguishes strategic from expert intuition. Experts rely on subject matter expertise to extrapolate from past experience to present situations. Strategic intuition is different. As Duggan points out, “Strategy is about an unknown future, where we don’t know the right answer until after the future unfolds.”
Strategic intuition has four basic building blocks:
1. Expert knowledge. Strategic intuition doesn’t leap full blown from the ether. Like expert intuition, it springs from a detailed knowledge of the subject. However, strategic intuition differs by exploiting connections between seemingly unrelated areas.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen started out programming for the PDP-8. Costing $18,000, it was about the size of a minibar fridge. Then came the Altair, which cost $397 and fit on a desk. At that time, mainframes were so much more powerful than the Altair that most considered the upstart just a fancy toy. Gates and Allen knew instinctively it represented the wave of the future and had the expertise to ride that wave. They dropped everything to write an operating system for the Altair, defining their fortunes by that one strategic insight.
2. An open mind. Strategic planning identifies an objective and then marches toward that goal. Strategic intuition reveals the most advantageous combination of circumstances, and may even shift the goal.
In the 90’s, Cisco Systems, Inc. achieved the highest valuation of any company on the planet, but like many corporations it had a near-death experience in the 2001 stock crash. CEO John Chambers then did something very daring. He rebuilt the company around a collaborative leadership model. He harnessed the creativity of his people to create a more nimble organization, less dependent on the sole vision of a handful of leaders including himself. His strategic intuition, and a big dose of humility, told him that in today’s climate of accelerated change the old command and control model was just too slow. That shift paid off handsomely when Cisco entered the 2007 market downturn with $26 billion in cash.
3. The Aha! moment.We experience this moment when the various elements come together in a new combination. The Greek inventor and mathematician Archimedes noticed the water rising as he lowered himself into his tub, giving him a solution for measuring the volume of irregular objects. He leaped from his bath and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!”
Why does this happen in the shower or when we’re stuck in traffic? In our overly full business lives we are too busy running on the hamster wheel to allow the quiet time required for these insights to bubble to the surface. We leave no room for them when a report due in three hours needs six more hours of work.
4. Resolve. We take the final step when we summon the determination necessary to take action and follow through on the insight. This is rarely easy, because by definition strategic intuition takes us into uncharted waters. We must conquer our own doubts and fears, the resistance of others, and the inherent difficulties of blazing a path where no one has gone before.Thomas Edison experimented with 1,000 different filaments for his light bulb before he succeeded. He had an unshakable vision of a possibility that had never manifested before.
So how do you harness strategic intuition in your own business life when you’re confronted with a dilemma?
Do what the analytical chemist August Kekule did when he couldn’t figure out the structure of benzene: Sleep on it. No matter how busy you are, you still have to sleep, and even if you rarely remember your dreams, research has proven that all of us dream several times each night. The dreaming mind builds connections between what we have learned and experienced during the day and what we’ve already stored in memory. Frequently the linkages surprise us. Dreaming also accesses a trove of subconscious knowledge that is vast compared to the conscious mind.
Go to sleep with a pen and pad of paper next to your bed. As you fall asleep, hold your question firmly in mind. Then write down any dreams you remember as soon as you awaken. Sometimes your answers will be very literal and matter of fact. I’ve been doing this for so many years that I often wake up with the literal solution to a business problem or a piece of writing, just as if I had been at my desk. Too bad those aren’t billable hours! More often, though, your dreams will be symbolic, giving you answers cloaked in metaphors that must be interpreted. Kekule dreamed of snakes dancing around, when one of them grasped its tail in its mouth. He woke up “knowing” that the benzene molecule was a circular structure.
Want to learn more? Join me in May for Dreamwork in Action: Seven Practical Tools for Creative Inspiration and Problem Solving. I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years. I’ll be sharing lots of practical “how to” techniques in a hands-on setting for an entire weekend. You’ll learn everything from how to reliably remember your dreams and work with symbols, to dream incubation for problem solving, Tibetan dream yoga, and techniques for entering a waking dream (less esoteric than it sounds) to explore practical or creative goals.
Go to Dreamwork in Action to find out more. To register call 575-278-3002.
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 http://thecogentexecutive.com/