2007 – Practical intelligence and the market for ideas
We all have ideas, scores of them every day. Some of them
could make a great contribution to a business, either as
a money-saving proposal or as a new product or service.
But few ideas ever see the light of day and those that do
are so easily dismissed or forgotten.
Charles Kettering, the man who invented automatic ignitions
for cars, the spark plug and the electric cash register
among other things, believed that suspicion of new ideas
was part of human nature.
“Human beings are so constituted as to see what is
wrong with a new thing, not what is right,” he wrote.
“To verify this you only have to submit a new idea
to a committee. They will obliterate 90 per cent of rightness
for the sake of 10 per cent of wrongness. The possibilities
a new idea opens up are not appreciated, because not one
person in a thousand has imagination.”
The last point is debatable. A short discussion with any
group of young people is enough to demonstrate that imagination
is not so rare. But somewhere between infancy and adulthood
it gets suppressed in so many of us, partly, perhaps, because
of Kettering’s earlier observation that it is easier
to pick faults with an idea than it is to make it happen.
Karl Albrecht, a management consultant and author argues
in a new book, Practical Intelligence, The Art and
Science of Common Sense*, that people have good
ideas all the time but lack motivation to do anything with
Sometimes the problem is that they simply fail to remember
the ideas and, for reasons I have long regarded as unfathomable,
do not write them down. I go to many seminars where there
are pads and pencils on the desks yet I rarely see people
making notes. Karl Albrecht believes that one reason so
many people overlook note-taking is that they have a misplaced
confidence in the power of their short term memory. He calls
it “short term memory delusion.”
I have no such delusion. Like all journalists I make notes
constantly. There’s rarely a time, even around the
house, that I don’t have a notebook and pen with me.
In fact I feel uncomfortable without them.
In Albrecht I have discovered a fellow note-taking obsessive
although he uses a card-indexing system, depositing cards
all over the place to make notes at any time of the day
or night. It doesn’t always work though. One night
he awoke with a great idea for a book so made a note on
the card by his bed. Next morning he read the note which
said: “Great idea for a new book.” It happens
to the best of us.
One of the worst and most common habits of people in meetings,
he writes, is to make a mental note of some necessary task.
Invariably the task is forgotten. “There is no such
thing as a mental note,” he says.
Is this some kind of hard-wired inefficiency that plays
fast and loose with ideas? It’s not as if companies
don’t value ideas. There have been enough attempts
at suggestion schemes over the years although few of them
survive long beyond the unrealistic exuberance that greets
One problem with ideas that, by their nature, are introducing
us to something new, is that the workplace in its varying
forms has evolved systems and disciplines that have become
established as conventions. Breaking with convention invites
Academia, for example, expects citations in quoting sources
but places little value on readability in academic texts.
The result, too often, is dense prose that loses all but
the most disciplined reader. Legal writing, on the other
hand, concentrates on linguistic precision to such an extent
that it sometimes needs a judicial review to establish meaning
Too often language is appropriated, arguably misappropriated,
to provide a sub-set of terminology or jargon for a particular
professional discipline. Unfortunately too many practitioners
not only condone differentiating language in their professions,
but promote its use almost conspiratorially as a form of
demarcation or job protection.
This means that different disciplines become cluttered
by professional mumbo-jumbo, a practice that has been sanctioned
from our formative years in school where many of us were
first introduced to IQ testing.
Instinctively we know that there has to be something more
to thinking skills than demonstrating a high IQ. Indeed
we probably know people who have excelled academically yet
who nonetheless possess few social skills. This is one reason
why some business leaders are suspicious of first class
degrees unless those who achieve such distinctions can demonstrate
some practical and social skills.
This explains Albrecht’s concentration on what he
calls “practical intelligence.” It is one thing
to know things but another thing to be able to think well,
to communicate and to put ideas in to practice.
Albrecht is attracted to the ideas of Howard Gardner,
the Harvard Professor who maintains that IQ tests measure
only a narrow area of thinking ability.
Gardner holds that there are multiple intelligences. The
best known of these concepts, popularised a few years ago
in books by Daniel Goleman is “emotional intelligence,”
a term beloved of business consultants because they can
find so little of it in conventional management behaviour.
Albrecht’s practical intelligence builds on the ideas
of multiple intelligence, outlining a series of guidelines
and exercises to promote better approaches to problem solving
in the workplace. Some of his suggestions are as simple
as making notes in meetings.
Others are designed to help people overcome the “habitual
idea killers” who seem to populate every meeting.
In my experience I’m not sure it’s possible
to avoid the idea killer who wears many guises. The worst
of them are those who nod in agreement while making their
own “mental note” to ignore everything.
In such circumstances sometimes the only way to push an
idea forward is to go it alone, discussing your thinking
now and again, picking up supporters where you can, dismissing
the false enthusiasts who are never around to help you surmount
the toughest obstacles. The hardest part is to admit defeat
but there are times when even the most inventive of people
have to face the reality that not every idea is a winner.
*Practical Intelligence, The Art and Science of Common
Sense, by Karl Albrecht, is published by Jossey-Bass, price
See also: Nurturing
ideas in the workplace