Washington, D.C.–Speaking at the Center for Global Development on March 12, Columbia Business School Professor of Strategy William Duggan called for a new approach to generating ideas for economic development in poor countries.  Many years of working on African development at the Ford Foundation taught him, he said, that the typical planning method of government aid agencies and foundations, including the Gates Foundation, led nowhere. 

Citing his book Strategic Intuition (New York:  Columbia Business School, 2007), Duggan said that we should stop setting goals and trying to plan how to achieve them.  Instead, we should follow the examples of Jack Welch of GE, Napoleon Bonaparte, and others who put together into new combinations elements of successful past solutions.  Jack Welch’s philosophy was that “Someone has a better idea somewhere.”  Welch considered the whole world to be GE’s laboratory.  He would have his people go on a treasure hunt to find the best ideas, then license or borrow them.

As analyzed by strategist Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon used a four-step process including:  1) examples from history (Duggan termed this “intelligent memory” after the book of that name by Barry Gordon and Lisa Berger) ; 2) presence of mind (as in Yoga); 3) flash of insight; and 4) resolution (resolving to pursue the idea and actually carrying through). 

Step #2 differs from creativity researchers’ techniques of stimulating creativity, Duggan said, in that “presence of mind” involves simple relaxation.  We need to relax our minds in order to let intuition rework past successes into a new combination that fits the situation.  Napoleon did not specify a goal at the outset; he studied the situation.  Only when his flash of insight had occurred did he start to plan.  Not one of some 3,000 members of his seminar audiences who had volunteered when and where they had their best ideas, Duggan noted, mentioned formal brainstorming sessions (“in the shower” was the favorite).

He explained how such a successful antipoverty idea as the Grameen Bank for microcredit arose from putting together three small things that had worked in the past, in contrast to the heavily funded and researched Green Revolution, which helped well-off farmers but didn’t help the poor.  In response to objections that it is difficult to know whether development projects worked or not, and also hard to know why something failed, he said that he used to worry about these issues.   But now he thinks that we just need the self-discipline to study past and current projects and behaviors to find ones that work, then search for ways to scale them up and help other people in poor countries to do likewise. 

Duggan said that there is not a single idea in his book that he originated; all the ideas are ones that he found in his own treasure hunt.  

Kenneth J. Dillon



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