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Donkin on Work - Innovation

July 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 them.

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 their launch.

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 censure.

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 in law.

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 $27.95.

See also: Nurturing ideas in the workplace

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