Millions of people are smart. To truly excel, you need to kick it up a notch.We’ve all seen smart people lose to clever people. I know I have. (Not that I’m smart. Work with me for a bit.)
Years ago I raced motorcycles. I was a decent rider in a slightly-above-average-fish in a small pond kind of way. I won my share of races. But there was one rider I could never beat.
Objectively you would think I was better: I had better equipment, tended to set better lap times, and was bold in an, “I’ve broken some bones and since I didn’t get my collarbone fixed right one shoulder hangs a little lower than the other but hey everybody knows chicks dig guys with lots of scars” kind of way (note to younger self: No they don’t). Yet he still beat me four races in a row.
I was a smart and experienced rider. He was just as smart–but he was also clever.
Sparing you (and my ego) too much detail, here’s what happened:
First race: I rode a textbook ride. On the last lap he out-braked me and passed where I was strongest, killed my drive off that turn, and used a couple lapped riders to scrape me off my line in the next turn.
He won. Lessons learned: 1) Sometimes you are weakest where you think you are strongest, and 2) Throwing your helmet greatly reduces its cosmetic appeal.
Next race: He took the lead early and I let him go, thinking he would wear down his tires on an unusually abrasive track. Textbook, conventional wisdom call–but he took advantage of clear sailing to ride perfect lines.
He won by .012 seconds. Lessons learned: 1) Conventional wisdom usually produces conventional results, and 2) Tossing a few insulting gestures at a slower rider before he takes off his helmet to reveal a small, teardrop tattoo below his eye shows a serious disregard for personal safety. (True story.)
Next race: I jumped out to a fast start and clicked off extremely consistent lap times… until I worked too hard in too many corners to pass too many lapped riders and made my back tire look like it ran into a cheese grater with an attitude.
He knew the track and the competition better than I did and purposely hung back to avoid lapping erratic riders too soon.
He won (two words I’m tired of writing.) Lessons learned: 1) Your biggest competition is sometimes not the competition you imagine, and 2) You can love your tires but they will never love you back.
Fourth race: He was totally inside my head. All I remember is finishing second. Lesson learned: Sometimes the best memories are the memories you manage to forget.
Biggest lesson learned? Clever often beats smart.
The Difference Between Smart & Clever
For the sake of argument let’s define smart as educated, trained, experienced, and seasoned. Smart people can evaluate a situation and determine the right thing to do.
Clever takes smart a step farther, adding insight and a dash of the unexpected. Clever people evaluate a situation, determine the smart thing to do, and then go a step farther to determine an often-surprising way to capitalise on an opportunity.
In business terms, smart is the guy down the hall with the MBA who analyses and optimizes your supply chain because you asked him to. Clever is the gal on the shop floor who shows how productivity can be increased by 15% simply by sequencing jobs differently. (Another true story.)
The key to making clever decisions and finding clever strategies is to view problems from a different perspective. Necessity is the mother of cleverness, so creating a little artificial necessity automatically stimulates cleverness.
Here are five easy ways:
1. Think of the worst that could happen.
What if you lose your biggest customer? What if you lose your job? What if your industry tanks?
The answers could indicate a great change in overall strategy or uncover unexpected opportunities.
2. Pretend you’re out of money.
Solid cash flow is great, but a steady stream of revenue can also hide opportunities to save money or optimise processes. If you ran out of money, what would you do?
Think through as many scenarios as possible, then implement the best ideas.
3. Pretend you can’t follow the rules.
Every business has rules, both written and unwritten. As individuals we all follow external and self-imposed rules. But what would you do if you couldn’t follow company or personal guidelines to solve a problem? What if you couldn’t ask your boss for permission? What if you couldn’t ask your partner for help? What if your policy manual suddenly went missing?
Tap your inner Captain Kidd, play pirate, and mentally break a few rules. You will probably find that some of the “rules” you follow aren’t rules at all; they’re just conventional wisdom in disguise.
4. Pretend you only have five minutes to solve a problem.
Speed is also the mother of cleverness. Pick a problem and give yourself five minutes to reach a decision. Pretend, say, you only have five minutes to decide what type of business to start. If you had to decide right now what would you choose?
Most of us play out too many “What if?” scenarios for our own good. Often a snap decision is the right decision because it cuts through the clutter.
5. Pretend perfect is achievable.
This is my favourite. Most of us tend to view improvement from a percentage-gain perspective: Increase productivity by 5%, reduce cost by 4%. We look for incremental gains rather than perfection. That’s what we’re trained to do.
But what if you aimed for perfect? What would be required in order to achieve perfection?
A machine operator and I took this approach with surprising results. While discussing an upcoming budget cycle, I didn’t ask him the tried and true, “Do you have any ideas for how we can raise productivity by 3% next year?” Instead, I asked, “What if you had to make sure your machine never went down? What would we need to do?”
Over the course of an hour he listed every conceivable reason his equipment jammed, timed out, shut down because of mechanical and electrical failures. We figured out concrete ways to avoid every item on the list. Then we implemented those ideas.
Was it easy? Heck no. We changed a number of processes, put one employee on a different lunch schedule so he could perform preventive maintenance while the line was idle, increased usage of a number of component parts… the list goes on and on.
We never hit perfection, but in three months productivity was up 32% and the ROI on cost added to the process was over 800%.
Smart? Sure. Clever too.
Anyone can be smart. Take your business to the next level by adding clever to your skill set.
This post originally appeared at Inc.
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