How your mind really works: strategic intuition

In the course of a delightful and lively chat on strategic routes, our friends over at Synnovatia provided a very insightful document on how traditional approaches to problem solving in the US Army have been, to a certain extent, trying hard to “separate” two ways of thought and analysis which are, as Neuroscience has proven in the past decade, inextricably interrelated. Analytical thinking and strategic intuition, or what Carl von Clausewitz in the early 19th Century described as coup d’oeil. As he articulately explained, “if one is to get safely through this perpetual conflict with the unexpected, two qualities are indispensable.” The first is figuratively expressed by the French phrase coup d’oeil. The other is resolution. For Clausewitz, coup d’oeil is “the rapid discovery of a truth which to the ordinary mind is either not visible at all or only becomes so after long examination and reflection.”

We read in William Duggan’s research that Army planning takes three main forms: Army problem solving, the military decision-making process (MDMP), and troop leading procedures (TLP). In all three forms, “the planning process structures the thinking of commanders and staff while supporting their insight, creativity, and initiative”. On the surface, he claims, there is nothing wrong with this statement. “But look deeper, and you find the old model of the brain: structured analysis on one side, and unstructured insight and creativity on the other”.

Analysis vs Creativity?

George Smith Patton, Jr.Strategic intuition, in contrast,“blends analysis, structure, insight, and creativity so thoroughly that you cannot unravel them.” Army problem solving “provides a standard, systematic approach to define and analyse a problem, develop and analyse possible solutions, choose the best solution, and implement a plan of action that solves the problem.” This four-step sequence is a classic statement of analytical problem solving. We cannot trace where the sequence came from,“but it seems logical, so it is rare for anyone to question it or ask its origin.” But we know now that strategic intuition does not follow this four-step sequence.

Why this seems of special interest is that it points to some major shifts in what we take to be the most illuminated forms of decision-making, putting individual coup d’oeil, resolution, presence of mind and experience (not only one’s own, but that which comes from the analysis of human history), at the center of decision-making. This is what cognitive psychologist Gary Klein calls “expert intuition.”

Recent advances in how the mind works have overturned the old idea that analysis and intuition are two separate functions taking place in two different parts of the brain. In the new view,“analysis and intuition are so intertwined that it is impossible to sort them out. There is no good analysis without intuition, and no good intuition without analysis.” (Duggan) They go together in all situations. Some scientists call the new model of the brain “intelligent memory,” where analysis puts elements into your brain and intuition pulls them out and combines them into action.

However, “our most-accepted approach to problem solving is grounded in an incorrect premise about the source of creativity in the brain” (Duggan). As we now know (refer to Nobel Price winner Eric Kandel if in doubt!) “there is no left brain; there is no right. There is only learning and recall, in various combinations, throughout the entire brain.”

Intuition = Search + Combine

Neuroscientist Barry Gordon, shows us this newer model by portraying the everyday intelligent memory of human beings “as the greatest inventory system on earth.” From the moment you’re born, your brain takes things in, breaks them down, and puts them on shelves. As new information comes in, your brain does a search to see how it fits with other information already stored in your memory. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf and combine with the new, and the result is a thought. The breaking down and storing process is analysis. The searching and combining is intuition. Both are necessary for all kinds of thought. Even a mathematical calculation requires the intuition part, to recall the symbols and formula previously learned in order to apply them to the problem (Gordon).

When the pieces come off the shelf smoothly, in familiar patterns — such as that simple sum you’ve done many times — you don’t even realise it has happened. When lots of different pieces combine into a new pattern, you feel it as a flash of insight, the famous “aha!” moment. But the mental mechanism works the same way in both cases (Gordon).

So, based on this, what about a bold proposal: Just as the intelligent memory concept has replaced the old two-sided brain theory in Neuroscience, do companies need to replace brainstorming with methods that reflect more accurately how creative ideas actually form in the mind?

They don’t need to start from scratch, once we understand how intelligent memory works, we find several existing techniques that fit. Another post on this might follow.

References: Coup d’oeil: Strategic Intuition in Army Planning, William Duggan, 2005. How Aha! Really Happens, William Duggan, Strategy and Business, 2010. Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory, Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel. Neuron, 1998. On War, Carl von Clausewitz, 1831 (unfinished in his lifetime). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein, 1999. Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter, Barry Gordon, 2003