Strategic Intuition: The Innovation of Flickr and Twitter
March 24, 2009 12 Comments
At the Defrag conference last November, all attendees received a copy of Strategic Intuition by Columbia professor William Duggan. It’s taken me a while to get around to it, but I am really enjoying this book.
So what is strategic intuition? It’s the process that leads to that flash of insight that hits you upside the head. Here’s how Duggan describes that:
It’s an open secret that good ideas come to you as flashes of insight, often when you don’t expect them. It’s probably happened to you – in the shower, or stepping onto a train, or stuck in traffic, falling asleep, swimming, or brushing your teeth in the morning.
Suddenly it hits you. It all comes together in your mind. You connect the dots. It can be one big “Aha!” or a series of smaller ones that together show you the way ahead. The fog clears and you see what to do. It seems so obvious. A moment before you had no idea. Now you do.
Professor Duggan’s work relates to the processes that lead up to that “aha!” moment. Yes, it turns out there’s a lot that happens before we’re struck with such blinding insights. And this research leads to some intriguing ways to think about pursuing innovation.
The book is chock full of perspectives from different fields that relate to his core premise of strategic intuition. If you read the book, you’ll get them all. Two that most interested me were:
- European military strategists: von Clausewitz vs. Jomini
- Ancient Asian philosophy: Dharma and Karma
I’m not passionate about either of those topics, yet when you read how Duggan relates them to the ways in which people innovate, they become quite compelling.
von Clausewitz vs. Jomini
I’m not going to bore you with details of the military strategy treatises of von Clausewitz and Jomini. Suffice to say that both are influential to this day in terms of their thinking about conducting military campaigns. Duggan distinguishes the two of them this way:
von Clausewitz focuses on considering the conditions at hand, having one’s mind open to new alternatives and pulling together disparate elements from previous experience to address battlefield situations. Jomini argues for establishing the objective clearly, setting a plan of attack and organizing everything centered around the plan of attack.
From Duggan’s perspective, von Clausewitz’s approach is more in-line with creativity and inspired ideas. This is the important part – that the best ideas cannot be willed into existence. Rather, they occur naturally as a result of combining previous experience and knowledge.
von Clausewitz’s work included four principles related to coup d’ oeil, French for a strike of the eye, a glance. Duggan relies heavily on these four principles throughout the book:
- Examples from history. The point here is that there is a wealth of relevant information from the past that is useful for the future. Our minds actually access this information subconsciously.
- Presence of mind. As Duggan writes, “You clear your mind of all expectations and previous ideas of what you might do or even what your goal is.” This mental state is important for developing new ideas.
- The flash of insight itself. This is something you’ll know. You “see” an idea clearly, one that wasn’t there minutes ago. It probably consumes you for a while. It’s a good thing.
- Resolution. It’s one thing to have a great idea. It’s another to execute on it. You have to be ready to follow through on what strategic intuition has given you.
Duggan relates these lessons to Napoleon’s success as a military commander. He later relates them to Bill Gates with Microsoft, and Sergei Brin and Larry Page with Google.
Let’s turn to the Asian philosophy.
Dharma and Karma
Yet Duggan does a masterful job of taking the reader through some basic information about the Asian philosophies of Hindu, Buddhist and Tao. He ultimately settles on the philosophies of Dharma and Karma:
- Dharma: Your own set of thoughts and actions. These are in your control.
- Karma: The set of circumstances which you are presented. These are outside your control.
This is where Duggan has a bit of his own flash of insight. He relates the concepts of Dharma and Karma to von Clausewitz’s coup d’ oeil. He references this quote by Napoleon, who was more von Clausewitz than Jomini:
I never truly was my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.
In the Buddhist sense, you “go with the flow” instead of “get what you want”. In both Western and Eastern culture, there is a mysticism or religious aspect to this idea. I don’t think you need to to be particularly spiritual to understand this. We understand that there are circumstances every day that (i) affect us; and (ii) are outside our control.
Putting This into Practice
In reading this, you can’t help but note the serendipity of the whole thing. There are a set of circumstances that will affect outcomes, and you can’t control them. You will experience flashes of insight, but only based on the prior experiences and knowledge that you happen to have.
It’s here where you really do need to be comfortable with this situation, where Eastern philosophy is useful. The biggest lesson I take from Duggan’s book is the “presence of mind” principle. The willingness to consider a change in circumstances and see alternatives based on prior ideas that have worked.
The hard part is to drop the well-though out plans you may have for achieving some objective. If you’re seeing success with a plan, then by all means see it through. If you’re not, is it only a problem of poor execution? Or is there something else that should be tried, an idea that emerges from something that is working? Especially in a corporate environment, the ability to just drop a project plan is hard. But empowering employees to follow “what works” relative to a given set of circumstances can be particularly valuable.
Let’s see how this applies to two well-known companies in the sociasl media space, Flickr and Twitter.
Flickr: Leveraging What Works
How many people know that Flickr got its start in a massively multiplayer online game? A company called Ludicorp offered this game, which didn’t really take off in usage. But as a part of that game, a Ludicorp engineer created a tool to upload and share photos on a public page. That particular tool got more response than the game itself did. Ludicorp’s Caterina Fake knew she had something of interest on her hands. She scrapped the online game, and pursued the online photo sharing idea.
Here’s where you really need to consider von Clausewitz vs. Jomini. The Jomini style of strategy would have had Fake continue to push on the multiplayer online game. She had a defined objective, and she had to pursue it come hell or high water.
The von Clausewitz and Dharma/Karma perspectives argue that Fake was being given a great gift. Some small piece in all that Ludicorp work was resonating, it just wasn’t the part they had anticipated. Fake had the presence of mind to recognize this, and to pursue the new idea where it took her.
Interestingly, the roots of Twitter go all the way back to the year 2000. As Steve Parks documents, Jack Dorsey was starting a business at the tail end of the 1990s’ dot com boom. He started a company to dispatch couriers, taxis and emergency services through the web. At the same time, he was an early user of the new LiveJournal blogging service. You can also see that he was aware of AOL’s Instant Messenger application for chatting with friends.
As Dorsey tells it:
One night in July of that year I had an idea to make a more “live” LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.
He carried this idea around for the next five years, until he had a chance to put it in place as the company for which he worked in 2006, Odeo, was flagging. His idea was coded by Odeo engineers, and Twitter was born.
Professor Duggan places a great emphasis in his book on combining ideas, experience and knowledge from different realms to create something new and compelling. These previous ideas, combined and applied to a new situation, are the fuel for the flash of insight. In von Clausewitz’s approach, these are the “examples from history”.
Look at the influences of Dorsey before he came up with the idea for Twitter in 2000:
- The need to share statuses easily with multiple people for his dispatch service
- The self-expression provided by LiveJournal
- The real-time communication of IM
With these influences, he conceived of Twitter. And look how it came about: “one night in July”. He can remember the specific circumstances and timing when the flash of insight hit him.
What It Means for You and Me
It would be wrong to assume that setting an objective is not relevant in this process. In reading this blog post, it’s possible that one could come away with the thought that you just kind of wait until a flash of insight hits you.
It’s important to distinguish between having an objective, and being unyielding in pursuing the plan to achieve it. It’s another to have an objective, and to have the flexibility to change the plan or even the objective.
I also believe these flashes of insight only come when you’re focused on something. Focus is the catalyst for our minds to piece together different experiences and knowledge, and gives a channel for where insight can emerge.
Personally, I won’t stop establishing objectives and planning for them. But this book has been influential to me in having “presence of mind” in pursuit of these objectives.
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