Strategic Intuition

What is strategic intuition?

I have previously described coup d’oeil,[1] and while I do like the term, it’s a bit of an issue to attempt the importation of a word from French with which the English tongue will have difficulty pronouncing. To see it in print without aid, it’s impossible. It was this minor conundrum which led me to opt for the phrase “strategic intuition” to describe my practice. The term is, I feel, a good one, but a search for other uses of the phrase was of course necessary prior to using it as a business name. What I found was perhaps the best result. There does not appear to be a business by this name, nor is it a popular phrase in business-speak… but the theme is known and understood in certain circles, in such a way as to underscore the importance of what I’m describing.

Dr. William Duggan is an associate professor at Columbia Business School, where he teaches a course called Napoleon’s Glance. He is also a guest lecturer for the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and author of a two books on strategy, Napoleon’s Glance: The Secret of Strategy[2] and The Art of What Works—How Success Really Happens.[3] Quoting from Dr. Duggan’s course outline for “Napoleon’s Glance:”

The term “Napoleon’s glance” comes from the early strategy literature. The word “strategy” entered the English language in 1810, as military scholars rushed to study the success of Napoleon Bonaparte, who won more battles than any other general in recorded history. Over time the study of strategy spread to other fields, especially business. The first scholarly study of strategy, On War (1832) by Carl von Clausewitz, shows the key to Napoleon’s success as coup d’oeil, which means “glance” in French. Today we recognize coup d’oeil as strategic intuition: ordinary intuition is just a feeling, but strategic intuition comes from real knowledge and experience, brought together in a flash of insight to suit the situation. It’s the “big Aha!” — or a series of little ones — that shows you the way ahead.

Duggan’s work in “connecting the dots” between Napoleon’s strategic genius and modern decision-making processes underscores the conviction which I arrived at without the formal research supporting his work. Perhaps I got there intuitively, if you will.

Research on expert intuition supports the notion that in urgent situations, people make decisions by combining analysis of past experience with a flash of insight. In the 1990s psychologist Gary Klein studied the decision-making processes of emergency room nurses, firefighters and soldiers in battle. While these experts initially attributed their choices to intuition, further probing revealed that they were actually making rapid connections between the situation at hand and similar situations stored in their memories.

Recent brain research provides further evidence that people make decisions through a combination of analysis and intuition. In 2000 a group of neuroscientists won the Nobel Prize for a new model of the brain called intelligent memory, which overturned the previous left-brain/right-brain model. “Basically as you go through life, you’re putting things on the shelves of your brain,” says Duggan. “The scientists call it parsing; it’s technically analysis. Your brain is constantly comparing what it’s taking in to what’s already there, and when it finds a combination — a synthesis — you have an insight.”

After making the connection between von Clausewitz and modern science, Duggan defined the common idea as strategic intuition: “the selective projection of past elements into the future in a new combination as a course of action that might or might not fit your previous goals, and the personal commitment to work out the details along the way.”[4]

Duggan notes that “the idea that analysis and intuition take place in separate parts of the brain and are appropriate for different situations [is based upon an outdated view of the human mind]. In reality, as the new brain research shows, analysis and intuition are closely intertwined in all situations.” Still, while the recognition and description may be considered recent in some circles, the concept is not.

Strategic intuition describes how breakthrough ideas happen in all realms of human endeavor, from business to politics to art. “This might sound like the opposite of an innovation, but in a practical sense this is how innovation actually happens,” says Duggan. “And even in business this is an old idea — the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter basically said this in the 1940s. So it’s something that we rediscover again and again and again. I trace its earliest origins to the Tao Te Ching in ancient China, 450 BC.”[5]

Duggan’s course illustrates that a more realistic scenario includes multiple goals that could lead to a desired end objective, rather than a single fixed one to which all plans are directly related and in a step-by-step way. In fact, his description of the function of strategic intuition strongly supports the value of flexible general goals.


  1. Published here in January 2007. Part one defines the term in its military origins, part two compares and brings the term from its military background into a business context, and part three provides a bit of a summary before outlining the theme for the Coup d’Oeil Blog. [back]
  2. Abstract: Carl von Clausewitz spent twenty years struggling to pin down the genius of Napoleon. In Chapter Six of his great work, On War, Clausewitz reveals the secret: Napoleon’s glance. He calls it coup d’oeil, meaning a stroke of the eye, or “glance” – a sudden insight that shows you what course of action to take. It comes from knowledge of the past: you draw on what worked in other situations, in a new combination that fits the problem at hand. Napoleon’s Glance shows, in a striking series of historical vignettes, how ten great strategists owed their success to coup d’oeil. All applied it with great effort, risk, and no guarantee it would work. But in case after case, we find the same story: How American women won the vote. How General Patton became the most successful Allied general on the Western Front of World War II. How Joan of Arc saved France from certain conquest by England. How Picasso became the leading artist of the twentieth century. And so on through the centuries, across continents, in every field of human endeavor. (Amazon) [back]
  3. Abstract: Former G.E. CEO Jack Welch has become a business school archetype for corporate innovation and impact by working almost exclusively from one strategic credo – while you can seek new and innovative solutions to suite your present needs, you can only, in the end, do what has already been done. As simple as it may appear, that credo is actually the profound secret to achieving breakthrough success. The Art of What Works presents principles, tools and examples for observing what has worked and what hasn’t in the real world. While the content of all successful ventures changes on a case-by-case basis, the structure remains remarkably similar. This book provides unique insights precisely because it claims to offer no paradigm-shattering methodologies – just solid, proven strategies that have worked before, are working today and will provide value far into the future. (Amazon) [back]
  4. Strategic intuition: The key to innovation” [back]
  5. Ibid. [back]