A model for intuition, especially in complicated times

June 8, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Exercises, Leadership, Models

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Leading in complicated times can be challenging. Many people prefer not to lead because of the risk of visible failure.

Others thrive under pressure. They don’t have better odds of success than others. If you can become like that, people will want you around. Even if all you can do is stay calm beyond where others lose their cool, people will want you on their team or leading it.

How do you learn to stay calm and perform effectively under pressure — an attractive skill in business and many other situations? Experience is the best answer I know, which means failing a few times, preferably on a smaller scale on your way to succeeding on a big scale.

I found a great book by a great professor who teaches one of Columbia Business School’s most popular courses. The book is The Art of What Works. The professor is William Duggan. The course is on what he calls “expert intuition,” his name for choosing and creating strategy under pressure. He bases his theory on the first comprehensive book on strategy, On War, by Carl von Clausewitz, published in 1832, written about Napoleon, who, to this day, won more battles than any general in history.

Von Clausewitz points out that we often don’t have enough information to choose or plan as we’d like. More to the point in many situations we can’t. Yet we still have to choose and plan. How do successful people do so?

According to Bill, following von Clausewitz, writing about trying to choose and create strategy in the fog of war:

four key elements of strategy will help you make it through this fog of uncertainty.

First, you enter the fog with “presence of mind”—you expect the unexpected. Don’t go in thinking that you already know what to do. Be ready for surprise.

Second, you cut through the fog in a flash of insight. That flash is a coup d’oeil, which is French for “glance.” To von Clausewitz, a coup d’oeil is “the rapid discovery of a truth which in the ordinary mind is either not visible at all or only becomes so after long examination and reflection.”

Third, a strategist follows through on the coup d’oeil with “resolution.” To von Clausewitz, resolution is “removing the torments of doubt . . . when there are no sufficient motives for guidance.” There is no way to prove that your coup d’oeil is right, to convince every doubter with facts and figures. Despite the doubts, you follow through.

Fourth, the doubts are much reduced when “strategy . . . turns to experience, and directs its attention on those combinations which military history can furnish.” These combinations are the very content of the actual coup d’oeil. You see in a flash a new combination based on what worked in the past.

Presence of mind, coup d’oeil, resolution, and combinations from history—these four elements were the secrets of Napoleon’s success. To von Clausewitz, they formed the essence of strategy that others could also use.

Today, more than a century after von Clausewitz, modern research has given these four elements a growing body of scientific support, plus a modern name: expert intuition. Psychologists describe expert intuition as “recognition-based decision making,” where you see something similar from the past in the current situation. The greater your expertise, the more situations you see as familiar. A novice, in contrast, sees each situation as new and unique.

Bill’s book expands on these four concepts — presence of mind, insight, resolution, and combinations from history — and shows how successful people applied them in different areas, particularly business.

A model for intuition, especially in complicated times: presence of mind, insight, resolution, and combinations from history

If you want to learn strategy, especially in the context of leadership, I recommend his book (actually his books because he pursues these themes in later books). Know

  1. Presence of mind,
  2. Insight
  3. Resolution
  4. Combinations from history

His strategy is personal and helps you learn how to create strategies better.

One of my major advances in learning to solve problems came in working with Bill. It was to change my process to solving problems from trying to remove all distractions and imagining original brilliant solutions to asking “Can I find a similar problem that someone has solved before and apply their solution here?”. I also ask, “who can solve this problem better than I can and how can I enlist their help?”

Actually, I’ve started taking for granted other solutions exist so I start by looking for similar solved problems and their solutions.

I feel like many people value originality in solutions. Now I wonder who cares about originality when trying to solve a problem. The only measure of a solution’s importance is if it solved the problem and, if so, how well. I’ve learned to value effectiveness to the point where I don’t see the point in originality in solving problems except among known-to-be-effective solutions.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when trying to solve problems, choose, and create strategy, especially under pressure.

I also use this belief when I find a new solution to a problem. I try to think of other places in life I can apply that solution.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces trying to solve problems from scratch, losing your calm in stressful situations, gathering information when more information doesn’t help or is unavailable, and analyzing when no further analysis will help with relying on expert intuition.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to staying calm and making more effective strategy and choices under pressure.

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