Who’s Really “Smart?”

When someone says a person is “smart,” what does that mean to you? Does it mean they’re well educated? That they know a lot of factual information, or “stuff?” That they’re experienced? That they know how to do something well? When we hear a professor spout volumes of historical details from memory, or a game show contestant who has all the trivia answers, the comment so often made is, “Oh, they’re so smart!”

Maybe…or maybe they simple have excellent recall. Does that really make someone “smart?”

Memorizing every player’s statistics may be helpful, but it’s not nearly enough to be an effective coach. A salesperson, with total command of every detail of each client’s professional lives, has a significant advantage over someone without that information. But just knowing that stuff won’t close any sales.

What drives innovation (and success generally) is not what someone already knows, but what they’re capable of inventing or discovering, what new insights they can acquire. It’s a willingness to treat existing knowledge as a source of possibilities, rather than conclusions.

What set of skills are you cultivating in yourself and rewarding in others? The ability to “get it right” every time? Or the ability to respond and adapt to constantly changing circumstances? Those who insist on always being right become inflexible and risk-averse. Innovation requires a willingness to experiment, to face possible failure. Then humbly learning from that good or bad outcome.

Truly “smart” people are skilled at managing that experimental process. They’re good at using logical reasoning to model possible outcomes, so they don’t have to touch every stove to see if it’s hot. They’re adept at experimenting in their head, first. Yet they recognize that the real world is the only test that really counts. They understand that all they ever really “know” for sure is what worked or didn’t work last time.

By this definition, “smart” people are not as invested in being “correct,” in always being the one with the right answer. So they tend to collaborate well and reinforce the same “smart” behaviors in those around them.

Only by bringing enough truly smart people together, can we create truly smart organizations, organizations that promote and sustain innovation.

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