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From Napoleon to Google, how “flashes of  insight” work  

Every time William Duggan polls an audience on when good strategic ideas originate during their work week, he gets the same answers: when people free their minds with relaxing activities like running, swimming, showering, or falling asleep. “I’ve asked this probably of 3,000 people now,” Duggan, associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, said during a talk presented by the student-led Private Equity, Entrepreneurial Ventures and Venture Capital Club, Professor Jim Schrager and the Evening MBA/Weekend MBA Program Office at Gleacher Center on March 4. “No one has ever said, ‘In a formal brainstorming meeting.’”

The best, most innovative ideas come during “flashes of insight,” he said. “Things literally come together in your mind,” Duggan said. “Modern science now tells us how these flashes of insight happen. By understanding that, we can understand how it works and how you can do it better.”

In 2000, scientists used MRI images of the brain at work to overturn the idea that the right and left sides of the brain operate in two different ways, he said. The new model showed that many locations of both sides of the brain operate during flashes of insight, Duggan said. “It’s all simultaneous,” he said. “There is no left-right in modes of thought. In all modes of thought, scientists now believe, that what you might call analysis and intuition work together all the time.”

This discovery perfectly describes the start in the 19th century of the formal academic study of strategy, a word introduced to the English language in 1810 to describe Napoleon’s battlefield success, Duggan said. In On War, one of the first books on modern military strategy, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz explained how Napoleon combined four crucial steps to determine the strategy for his first major military victory, Duggan said.

Those steps include storing failed— and especially successful— examples from history, reaching a presence of mind free of all preconceptions, allowing the mind to make its own connections in a flash of insight, and resolving to execute the course of action despite potential resistance, he said.

In the late 1970s, Steve Jobs of the fledgling Apple Computers essentially utilized the same process during a visit to Xerox Corporation, when executives demonstrated their “graphical user interface” application,  the seed for Apple’s ground-breaking windows operating system, Duggan said. “I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life,” Jobs says during the short business film Great Artists Steal, aired by Duggan during his talk. “Within 10 minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this someday,” Jobs adds.

Other examples of such “theft,” or innovative synthesis, of business ideas came when Henry Ford got the idea for the moving assembly line after visiting the Chicago stockyards and when Google’s founders launched their groundbreaking Internet search engine, Duggan said. The latter combined the existing Alta Vista search engine, data mining algorithms they learned at Stanford University, the common academic ranking of professors by annual journal citings, and the innocuous posting of searchable ads on another Web site to create the for-profit Google, he said.

“In a series of flashes of insight, they put together four things, none of which they invented,” Duggan said. “All four had existed before them. The combination was new and made them two very happy young men.”

Mike Dienhart, a Chicago GSB Management Institute student, said he attended Duggan’s presentation because he was not sure why his flashes of insight most often occur in the shower. “I took away a couple of interesting things,” Dienhart said. “One is that his perspective is that this process can’t be brought out on command. It’s not something where you can snap your fingers and say, ‘Let’s have good ideas now.’ The other piece I liked was von Clausewitz’s ideas on presence of mind. I’ve heard that before and think it’s an interesting approach to letting go and letting the ideas come naturally.”

--Phil Rockrohr