coup d’oeil (part one)

Coup d’oeil. Anyone who’s read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink may catch the title; those with the urge to pronounce may want to hear it first. The non-Francophones among us (myself included) are likely to butcher the phrase… but sometimes foreign phrases convey meaning so much better than the translated explanation. Like schadenfreude or mensch or ubuntu or Zeitgeist or vox populi. Sometimes they don’t translate, they just have that je ne sais quoi… and sometimes it just sounds better to say you’re entering terra incognita, and assume the educated will pick it up, rather than simply say it in English. Que sera, sera.

Coup d’oeil simply doesn’t contain its meaning in the translation: a glance, a quick look. Ho-hum. It’s used in military circles to describe an intuitive understanding of the field of battle. Gladwell calls it “the power of the glance,” and applies it to a practice he calls thin-slicing, making determinations based on very narrow slices of information.

Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human. We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of [subtle telltale signs] out there, lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.

It is striking, for instance, how many different professions and disciplines have a word to describe the particular gift of reading deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience. In basketball, the player who can take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her is said to have “court sense.” In the military, brilliant generals are said to posess “coup d’oeil” — which, translated from the French, means “power of the glance”: the ability to immediately see and make sense of the battlefield. Napoleon had coup d’oeil. So did Patton. The ornithologist David Sibley says that in Cape May, New Jersey, he once spotted a bird in flight from two hundred yards away and knew, instantly, that it was a ruff, a rare sandpiper. He had never seen a ruff in flight before; nor was the moment long enough for him to make a careful identification. But he was able to capture what bird-watchers call the bird’s “giss” — its essence — and that was enough.[1]

Gladwell’s explanation is fairly clear in conveying what he means by thin-slicing, or by the “power of the glance” in different professions. He’s given us enough in just these paragraphs to recognize the kinds of people that have it and when they’re exercising it. We may even see it operating in our own conclusion-reaching processes. It is, however, interesting to note that there really is no such expression applying to the field of business. Business, as everyone knows, must be far more analytical than that. Oh. Really?

It is generally assumed that those who can best present, illustrate, explain, and defend their point of view will be correct. After all, a reasoned explanation is much to be preferred over a gut feeling that defies explanation. Perhaps we should test that assumption.

Guru blogger-ess Kathy Sierra has written on this subject as well. She observes,

In way too many meetings, the fastest talkers win. And by “fastest talkers”, I mean those who are the first to articulate an idea, challenge, issue, whatever. Too many of us assume that if it sounds smart, it probably is, especially when we aren’t given the chance to think about it. The problem is, the guy with the “gut feeling”–the one who senses that something’s not right, but has no idea how to explain it, let alone articulate it on the spot—might be right. Too bad, though, because the glib usually rule.

Let’s face it–the clever, witty, glib talkers can make the non-clever, non-witty, and non-glib sound like slow dolts. Slow-to-articulate is mistaken for slow-in-the-head. And as the world speeds up and decisions have to be made right frickin’ NOW, it just gets worse.[2]

She goes on to discuss some ways of combatting this phenomenon, of listening to the “niggle” that you can’t quite get a handle on, and finding time to grasp and explain it. Basically, she confesses that like many people, she can often get snowballed by people who are faster talkers… they’ve outlined their conclusion before she’s put her finger on exactly why it is she disagrees. She just can’t explain it yet — which is bad news if a vote is to be cast by the end of the meeting. Several months later, she revisits this theme:

Earlier we talked about why the fast-talking guy sounds smarter than the guy who understands more than he can say. We talked about how wrong that is, and how if the glib always win, we all lose. But the more important battle is not between articulate vs. less-articulate people… it’s between the articulate vs. non-articulate parts of your own head. Your brain has both a quick-talker and a quick-thinker, but the good-talker “know-it-all” gets the glory. In other words, there’s a smart part and a dumb part of your brain, and the problem is…the dumb part talks.[3]

In this installment, she’s considering how a person might train themselves to listen to the non-articulate part of the brain and begin to understand what’s happening over there — on the smart side.

I think it’s fair to say that favour is granted to the vocal, to those with an explanation, however credible that explanation is—or isn’t. Those of us who in the back of our minds cling to ideas like “correct”, “right”, “best”, “true”, and “wisest” are at odds with the simple notions of first-to-respond, or loudest responder. So why is there not more room for this idea of intuition in the business world? Back to Gladwell, who opens with a metaphor:

Snap judgements and rapid cognition take place behind a locked door. …I don’t think we are very good at dealing with the fact of that locked door. It’s one thing to acknowledge the enormous power of snap judements and thin slices but quite another to place our trust in something so seemingly mysterious. “My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that,” the son of the billionaire investor George Soros has said. “But I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, At least half of this is bull. I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever is because his back starts killing him. He literally goes into a spasm, and it’s this early warning sign.”

Clearly this is part ofthe reason why George Soros is so good at what he does: he is someone who is aware of the value of the products of his unconscious reasoning. But if you or I were to invest our money with Soros, we’d feel nervous if the only reason he could give for a decision was that his back hurt. A highly successful CEO like Jack Welch may entitle his memoir Jack: Straight from the Gut, but he then makes it clear that what set him apart wasn’t just his gut but carefully worked-out theories of management, systems, and principles as well. Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way. …I think that approach is a mistake, and if we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgements. We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that — sometimes — we’re better off that way.[4]


  1. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), p.43-44 [back]
  2. Kathy Sierra, “When only the glib win, we all lose” (April 5, 2006) [back]
  3. Kathy Sierra, “How to be better at almost anything” (December 11, 2006) [back]
  4. Gladwell, Blink, p. 51-52. [back]