The Heart of Leadership: Where Does Business Insight Come From and How Do You Harness It?

A man walks in a city setting while carrying a brown briefcase and holding a cell phone.

Where does business creativity originate? What sparks an 'Aha!' moment? How do novel solutions to problems arise? According to William Duggan, a faculty member in the Columbia Business School Executive Education Advanced Management Program, business insight is the key to unlocking new ideas and opportunities. He calls it the seventh sense, and in his book, The Seventh Sense: How Flashes of Insight Change Your Life, he details the origin of business insight, its application, and how you can access this crucial resource.

Some might argue that business insight, or strategic intuition, cannot be taught because it emerges so suddenly. As Duggan puts it, a "flash of insight cuts through the fog of your mind with a clear, shining thought." However, consider that a critical element of such breakthroughs is understanding — and understanding requires inquiry, investigation, and focused personal development. There are many executive education programs in the world, but very few delve as profoundly into business insight as the Advanced Management Program. The unique curriculum and program structure help accomplished leaders hone business insight through work promoting heightened self-awareness, innovation, and creativity while refining decision-making and change management skills.

What Is Business Insight?

The Seventh Sense begins with Duggan identifying the five familiar senses — smell, taste, sight, sound, and touch. Each relies on the brain to use memory to transform sensory input into usable information. The brain processes the input, compares it with previous sensory experiences, and categorizes the new experience. That is the essence of how we learn. Learning is simply the process of storing, recalling, and applying memory to new experiences.

Duggan asserts that intuition constitutes a sixth sense and insight a seventh. These senses operate much like the more familiar senses in that they are dependent on mental activity and memory. However, they each differ in one crucial characteristic.

Intuition draws upon past experiences to trigger rapid responses to familiar stimuli, making it possible to strengthen intuition through education and practice. Consider a professional basketball player; they don't need to think about shooting a free throw because they have learned to shoot free throws intuitively through lengthy and repetitive practice. This muscle memory has intellectual parallels. An actuary can quickly summarize a data table's key features after one glance because they have seen and analyzed many similar data sets in the past.

Insight also draws on existing knowledge and experience to trigger a response, but that response generates a novel solution or idea. It combines previously unrelated ideas to create something new, so insights often seem obvious in hindsight. However, they are only obvious to the originator, whose unique experiences and ideas combine to create a new thought.

Where Does Business Insight Originate?

Business insight is the "flash of genius" that gives birth to new companies, products, technologies, and industries. Throughout The Seventh Sense, Duggan refers to the origins of Starbucks as a national restaurant giant to illustrate the four-step process of unleashing business insight.

Step One: Reflecting on Examples From History

Novel ideas spring from memories of past experiences and other learning. Memories trigger questions and reflections that spawn novel ideas. For example, the idea for Starbucks germinated in businessman and author Howard Schultz's mind during a trip to Milan, Italy. There, Schultz sipped his first espresso and noticed the prevalence and success of coffee bars. At the time, Starbucks was a small retail chain whose entire business was selling roasted coffee beans and coffee-making equipment. Reflecting on Italian coffee bars, Schultz — who was head of marketing — began to envision a future trajectory for the company very different from its existing business model.

Step Two: Applying Presence of Mind

You must have the presence of mind and mental agility to transform and combine memories to spur new ideas. To explain how presence of mind contributes to business insight, Duggan suggests you imagine a trip to the grocery store without a list or a set plan. In this scenario, you peruse the aisles, grabbing items you think might provide the building blocks of a delicious meal. But while you shop, your idea of what that meal looks like transforms. You return some products to the shelves and grab others, and gradually, your menu changes. At the conclusion of your shopping excursion, you have planned a novel meal not based on a recipe or something you've previously prepared — that would involve intuition. Instead, you have created something new as a result of insight.

In the Starbucks example, Schultz combined his experiences in Milan's coffee bars with his unique situation. Starbucks already sold the high-end beans required to produce premium coffee and espresso. Schultz had the presence of mind to merge the Italian coffee bar model with the company's existing business model to develop a new, unprecedented American business.

Step Three: Calming Your Mind

The flash of insight is the most challenging element of the process to quantify or describe. It is almost impossible to replicate in the laboratory because it requires novelty, which is unpredictable. Consequently, most experiments that attempt to replicate insight replicate intuition instead. What researchers do know is that while intuition results from a steady, concerted, and active stream of mental activity, insight usually follows a period of psychic calmness. Relaxation helps the brain combine experiences into novel formulations, which suggests that psychological safety may play as much of a role in insight generation as learning experiences.

Step Four: Implementing Insight

In the Starbucks example, Schultz's insight was that joining two business models to develop a reimagined Starbucks could disrupt the coffee market in the United States. However, actually realizing that insight took a great deal of persistence, determination, and a willingness to shift gears. Schultz's trip to Milan convinced him that bringing the cafe culture to America was the right trajectory for Starbucks, but company executives were resistant. Schultz's insight could have been a dead end, but he met a corporate lawyer who explained how he could raise enough money to launch his idea on his own. That led to secondary insights that carried his primary insight further. Schultz left Starbucks, started his own coffee bar, and ultimately made enough money to buy the original Starbucks chain.

The takeaway is that insight alone is not enough. Resolution is necessary to sell an idea. In The Seventh Sense, Duggan offers guidance on encouraging buy-in when pitching a new idea. He suggests asking for feedback that, instead of criticizing the vision, contributes to the picture. The former promotes conflict and negativity, while the latter involves and engages others and can lead to the discovery of competitive advantages you might not have recognized on your own.

How Do You Harness Business Insight?

Duggan's approach to harnessing business insight also takes four steps. The first is to identify a challenge. Specificity is important. Identifying challenges, problems, and sources of stress in great detail is crucial because it leads to reflection. The next step is to determine whether each challenge is a "past" or "future" problem. Are you worried about something that might happen or dealing with the consequences of a previous unfortunate choice or action? In the third step, you identify challenges as either dharma or karma. Dharma refers to circumstances within your control, whereas karma refers to those beyond your control. Finally, you plan a course of action. In the case of dharma, it may be a set of active steps. In the case of karma, you may need a mental or attitudinal adjustment.

Each step helps free your mind of stress and open it to inspiration. Stress is a potent inhibitor of insight; reducing or eliminating it enables you to have presence of mind, so you are receptive to flashes of insight.

Duggan suggests you can further open your mind to insight by exercising "idea networking," which differs from traditional networking. Traditional networking requires you to ask many questions of many people. Idea networking requires that you pose high-quality questions to a limited number of recipients. High-quality questions are focused inquiries that engage others and give them space to present intriguing ideas that can catalyze your next insight.

The Columbia Business School Executive Education Advanced Management Program offers participants numerous opportunities to practice idea networking during executive coaching sessions and peer coaching sessions with other senior leaders. At the culmination of the Advanced Management Program, participants gain alumni status and can tap into Columbia Business School's elite global network of business leaders across industries.

Why Is Business Insight So Important?

Business insight drives game-changing innovations. Schultz saw new opportunities in an existing vertical. Edison's light bulb combined two existing ideas — the filament and the bulb — to create an entirely original solution. However, you do not need to be an inventor or an entrepreneur to benefit from business insight. Insight can help you navigate business challenges, make profitable pivots to corporate strategy, or identify career opportunities you might not have considered were you not practicing presence of mind. Business insight can also enhance your leadership skills so you can strengthen your organization's competitive strategy, support your employees' professional development, and respond thoughtfully in crises.

Edison observed that success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, suggesting that you only need business insight one percent of the time. Like Schultz, who hustled and faced rejection before finally raising the funds necessary to open Il Giornale — the precursor to the Starbucks of today — you must spend much more time putting in the hard work to realize your inspired vision. Fortunately, benefitting from your seventh sense is simple. First, you learn, then you make space for stillness.

What You Will Learn About Business Insight in the Advanced Management Program by Columbia Business School Executive Education

During your time in the Columbia Business School Executive Education's Advanced Management Program, you will learn how business insight can give you a competitive advantage. You will practice leveraging your past experiences to shape your present-day decision-making process — making you a more intuitive and decisive leader. You will spend time developing your seventh sense with an executive coach and with other senior leaders so that you can approach problem-solving and innovation with more clarity. And as you tackle a transformational project based on a real-world case study and develop an action plan to implement in your organization, you will see how business insight can spur organizational change.

The Advanced Management Program curriculum promotes leadership development in C-Suite professionals and senior executives. The program's proprietary 360-degree leadership feedback tool is a catalyst through which you will develop your business insight using self-reflection and an analysis of strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The program's five-day immersion in New York City lets you practice developing business insight with peers from all over the world. As you complete reflective exercises together, you will gain a broader global perspective and learn new ideas that may someday become the basis of your next big insight.

To qualify for Columbia Business School Executive Education’s Advanced Management Program, you must have at least 10 years of work experience in general management and leadership roles. When you are ready to take your leadership skills to the next level and transform your management practice, apply to Columbia Business School Executive Education's Advanced Management Program.

Brochure Download

Download a brochure and learn more about Columbia Business School’s Advanced Management Program

More Insights

Headshot of Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen, Head of Operations Planning & Steering at Swiss International Air Lines.

A Different Angle: How Columbia Business School Takes a Fresh Approach to Executive Education

Headshot of Maria Ramsay.

How Columbia's Advanced Management Program Develops Authentic, Value-Driven Leaders

Headshot of Juan Carlos Gaona.

Advanced Management Program Alumnus Juan Carlos Gaona Explains How Columbia's Holistic Approach Develops Present Leaders