The word “strategy” entered the English language around 1810 in the midst of the Napoleonic wars as great thinkers all over Europe worked to decode how Napoleon Bonapatre had gone from a virtual unknown to emperor of Europe in less than a decade. 

In 1832, strategist Carl von Clausewitz published On War in which he explained how Napoleon dominated the European battlefield—not through strict planning, but through a much more intuitive process. 

Von Clausewitz described 4 key steps to Napoleon’s approach: 

    ◆    An in depth study of the past,
    ◆    An opening of the mind to all possibilities,
    ◆    A flash of insight, followed finally by,
    ◆    Resolution and clear action.

The key to Napoleon’s approach, von Clausewitz described, was “coup d’oeil” – a French term meaning ‘a strike of the eye.’ It was a form of intuition that led Napoleon to victory after victory. 

Six years later in 1838, another gentleman, Baron Antoine Jomini published a different book: Summary of the Art of War. Jomini’s writing focussed on a process much more familiar to us today. In Jomini's approach, narrowly focussed planning is emphasized: figure out where you are (A), set your sights on an objective (B), outline the steps in between, and then execute.

Von Clausewitz gave us strategic intuition. Jomini gave us strategic planning. 

Published only a handful of years apart, Jomini’s book which was written French and widely accessible took hold while von Clausewitz’s text in stilted German was forgotten. Over the years, most folks have never heard the term “strategic intuition,” while it’s hard to even drop off a box of doughnuts in the average conference room without hearing the term “strategic plan.”

When you reflect on some of the most successful and innovative leaders of our time (business and technology leaders like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk; and social leaders like Alice Paul and Mahatma Gandhi), you quickly notice, however, that their approach is much more in line with the strategic intuition mindset.

The most significant breakthroughs and discoveries in our history were just that, discoveries. They did not come from knowing, but through exploration, adaptation, and a keen attention to what could come next. 

A to B is certainly straightforward. But Jomini and strategic planning leave out a critical question: How do you know what B should be in the first place?

Almost a century after von Clausewitz’s study of Napoleon, social psychologist and economist Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought in 1926. After studying a range of famous inventors and thinkers, Wallas identified 4 stages to the creative process that eerily echo the 4 steps outlined in von Clausewitz’s treatise on strategic intuition.

    ◆    Preparation: your past experience and learning in addition to new planning and study.
    ◆    Incubation: the intentional act of diverting your attention to seemingly unrelated activity.
    ◆    Illumination: the flash of insight in which a new idea or approach emerges.
    ◆    Verification: putting thought into action with a focus on learning.

Today, almost another full century since Wallas and 183 years since von Clausewitz, neuroscientists are discovering more and more evidence that backs up von Clausewitz’s and Wallas’ models. While good planning can certainly help great ideas along, great ideas don’t come from planning. In fact, much of the way we design our work actually inhibits key modes of critical thinking and activity, blinding us to key opportunities.

Strategic intuition, like strong strategic planning, can be learned. Like any other mode of thinking, practice and awareness are key.

I’ll be hosting a 90-munte workshop on The Art of Choosing, Nov 18, 2015. Come join us to learn how creative innovators including entrepreneurs, improvisers, and successful leaders think about problems. Through conversations, on-your-feet exercises, and inventories of your current structures and workflows, you’ll be able to identify creative constraints in your work and start doing more of what matters.

I hope you’ll join us or pass this invitation on to anyone you think might appreciate it.

Eventbrite - The Art of Choosing

In the meantime, check out William Duggan’s book, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement

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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2015.


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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at AndyZimney.com.