Corporate restructuring, M&A, competitive intelligence, strategy, new product development, and process reengineering. One thing required for success that they all share is the need for the best and brightest. The smartest person in the room. World-class minds to solve world-class problems. Top grads from the best schools.
I disagree. While intellect has its place in business, being smart is no replacement for creativity, agility, innovation or insight. Yes, sometimes these capabilities are rolled into one person, but rarely. Several decades helping clients create strategy has led to some insight into where smart is a help and where it can be deadly.
You wouldn’t want only the “smartest” surgeons, engineers, artists or teachers wholly responsible for your welfare. You’d want the right team of individuals, each bringing appropriate skills for the task. Creativity is about being able to see alternatives. Agility requires anticipation. Innovation is more about flawless execution than the up-front ideas. Insight needs, well, a lot more than intellectual horsepower.
The Risks From Being Smart
Being smart has a huge downside for humans. It derives from how we were raised, trained, rewarded and placed in corporations. As children, most of us were rewarded for being on time, orderly and respectful of adult norms. In school, being smart was equated with getting the “right” answer, quickly. Most professions promote a body of knowledge that implies adherence to widely accepted professional standards. Our advancement in most business settings is a result of knowing the right people, performing well on tasks and knowing the rules of promotion. All this seems appropriate because it is so familiar.
In strategy formation, high intellect can be a hindrance; in a team of only “the smartest of the smart,” it can be a disaster. Especially in an increasingly VUCA world, there is no single answer and the first answer is often not the best answer. For the highly intelligent person, the learned (both personally and socially) rigidity and linearity of problem-solving to reach an elegant, perfect solution gets in the way of seeing the possibilities of which powerful strategies are made.
Use Smart, But Leverage It
The solution is not to ban smart people from the strategy team. Rather, recognize that the skills you need for a powerful strategy team go far beyond intellect. A high-horsepower car engine is great in theory but is useless without fuel injectors, cooling system and brakes. Fill your team with staff (this also applies to external advisors) who can turn off their brains for a bit and participate more fully in the other essential parts of the strategy process.