Monday, August 25, 2008

The secret of creativity

(Reflections on "Strategic Intuition", by William Duggan, Columbia University Press, 2007).

What gives you that "game changing" idea in your strategy? This is the question Duggan sets out to answer in this book. And in so doing he lifts the lid on the secret of creativity.

So what goes on when you have a "game changing" idea? Basically, according to Duggan, you are combining pre-existing ideas and memories you already have, in new and interesting ways. Duggan calls this process "strategic intuition". Strategic intuition relies on a peculiar ability of the brain to see connections between different ideas and memories in a flash, in new ways. This ability to make connections in interesting ways is called "intelligent memory".

Duggan gives a lot of good examples in his book of "intelligent memory" in action. The first is Napoleon at the siege of Toulon in 1793. There Napoleon (who was not in command at the time, but advised the General who was) combined two pre-existing elements from his memory, along with some technological innovations, to come up with a new strategy that drove the British out of Toulon. At Toulon he remembered reading about how the British, in the American war of independence, got scared of being cut off from their main fleet when their harbour came under the range of cannon from a nearby hill. He combined this with Joan of Arc's strategy of relieving Orleans by attacking smaller fortresses around it.

So, he took these two ideas (from his reading of military history), noticed a small fort (l'Aiguiellette) on his new contour map, overlooking Toulon, and decided to take it. He put light cannon in l'Aiguiellette, aimed at Toulon, and the British felt cut off. They left Toulon without the French having to attack it.

So, on this reading, what makes Napoleon a good general? Simply his wide reading of military history, combined with his ability to make good connections between all those ideas in his head, and the present situation he is facing.

The Google story in 1996 is the same. Larry Page and Sergey Brin combine three existing elements in a new way. Firstly, the idea, from academia, that the more time a paper is cited, the more important it is. Larry Page took this analogy and applied it to links that connect back to a web page: the more links back to it, the more important the page. Brin and Page combined this with Alta Vista's idea to copy the whole web onto its computers to allow a full text search of the web. And, finally, they added the data mining expertise of their Professor at Stanford, Rajeev Motwani. The result of these three pre-existing elements, brought together in a new way, was the Google search engine (although at the time they thought they had invented a page ranking engine, but that's another story).

So what does all this mean? Well, if you want to think creatively, if you want to have strategic insights, you need to combine two important factors. First, you need a lot of good memories in your head as "raw material". Second, you need to be able to make useful connections between those memories, and see applications to your present situation.

The first, getting the "raw material" is easy enough. Just read a lot. Read what interests you. Read for enjoyment. And don't worry if it's not useful. The second - making connections between these ideas - might be a bit harder. What you need are tools and methods that help these connections to emerge. Duggan seems silent on this. But, it strikes me, at 2nd Road we have the "thinking tools" and approaches that can help people to make those useful connections.

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