Smart but Dumb: Don’t get Overtaken by the Pencil Sharpener

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By Oscar Ybarra, Innovate Blue Director

Chances are you know someone who seems quite sharp but who still doesn’t quite fulfill their potential, or they do downright dumb and stupid things. Other individuals you come across sound brilliant and you secretly envy their verbal fluency, but they don’t seem to implement any of their ideas. It’s actually very common for  people to be (or seem) both “smart” and at other times downright dumb.

A colleague of mine when doing training and coaching for top execs is fond of telling them that they are not as smart as they think they are. How’s that for an icebreaker? There are many reasons people are not as smart as they think they are, which will serve as fodder for future posts. But one reason is what I refer to as the “pencil sharpener” approach. As individuals become more committed to and expert in their field, and have been rewarded for applying this knowledge, they tend to see challenges, opportunities, and solutions mainly from the lens of their training and experiences–a mindset or way of thinking that continues to sharpen and narrow their attention. However, doing so increases the space in which blind-spots can germinate and grow.

If the work you’re doing doesn’t change much, and your solutions are effective, then being a sharpened pencil is probably okay. However, in today’s complex, information-overloaded world, it’s unlikely that the work one does will remain static. But telling people instead that they have to be adaptive in today’s world is also not very helpful–what does being adaptive mean?

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Some models of the evolution of intelligence propose intelligence as being made up of two main processes. One relies on the accretion of experiences and information organization (knowledge). This is used as a basis for continuously casting hypotheses upon the world with the expectation that things won’t change much moment to moment. You could call this the sharpened pencil aspect of intelligence. The other process is more flexible and on the lookout for change and information that can disconfirm our expectations.

Adaptive thinking is not doing away with pencil sharpeners or sharpened pencils. What research on intelligence suggests is that it’s important to appreciate the sharpened pencil in us (and in our organizations) and how it grounds our understanding, but that it’s also important to provide room for an internal skepticism (in us, in our teams, in our organizations) to make sure we’re not blindsided by a changing landscape. Thus, to be adaptive is to regularly manage this balance–one between stability and change, certainty and uncertainty–so that our views of the world actually fit what’s out there, and so that the choices we make create more value than costs.

At Innovate Blue one important goal of our campus-wide programs on entrepreneurship is to help our students understand what adaptive thinking is for themselves, their teams, or the organizations they create. It’s not enough to say that you have to be more agile and adaptive. Students should be encouraged to develop expertise and to sharpen their disciplinary thinking, but just as important they have to be encouraged to engage with messy problems, with people who may be different than they are (from different backgrounds and disciplines), so that a healthy skepticism can be developed.



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