The SmartAss and the DumbAss, How a Lack of Balance Can Kill Your Business


Businesses need balance. Repeat that to yourself as you read this post. I have become so tired of rigid absolutist attitudes in the business world that it is time to set some things straight. Two things triggered this post. First of all, the recent discussion about management by crowds which, lest you forget, I have explored in more detail than most. Secondly, I have been helping the guys behind the Ideafestival, which at it's base is about innovation and multidisicplinary knowledge. As a result, I have been having the whole "breadth vs. depth" debate in my own head, trying to figure out which is better for innovation.

The title of this post is to reflect on two types of people commonly found in the workplace. The first is the smartass. Smartasses know one area very very well, and as a result, they think that means they know every area very very well. Things have to be a certain way because there is only one way to minimize risks and smartasses tend to be risk averse. For instance, if you have a sticking point in a legal contract that involves potential damages which are low risk, you may concede to your customer and accept the extra risk in return for the business. The smartass doesn't want you to do that. He will remind you of the statistics, infinitesimal as they may be, and will not ever recognize that sometimes small risks make sense. The smartass is not interested in solving problems, but would rather regurgitate knowledge in an attempt to fit the problem to a ready solution.

Contrast that with the dumbass. The dumbass doesn't care about risks either, because the dumbass knows the one contrary case for everything. You say smoking kills and the dumbass points out that his father smoked two packs a day for 70 years and is in great health at age 90. The dumbass is dumb because he thinks the exception is the rule.

This ties back into the wisdom of crowds because supporters of the idea are often dumbasses and crowds themselves are often filled with smartasses. Crowds solve a handful of problems well, and only when they meet a specific set of conditions. For some reason, people are determined (as I was with TBE) to prove that crowds are smart for lots of things. It's egalitarian. It's sexy. It's democratic. It makes us popular to tell people that they are smarter than the experts. One of the major problems though, with crowds full of smartasses, is that if they aren't held individually accountable for their decisions, they will not think through them. They will simply regurgitate their "rules" or whatever and what you get is… well, it's probably wrong.

For more on the wisdom of crowds, particularly as it relates to the recent Schaumberg Flyers PR stunt, check out these posts by Jeff and Bren.

Now turn for a second to the innovation debate. The smartass and dumbass kill innovation because they don't mix ideas. Smartasses often can't see outside of their own small areas of knowledge. They have tunnel vision. Dumbasses can't understand anything in depth. They have a lack of true understanding of many issues. What innovation really requires is exposure to new ideas, but an understanding of these ideas on a deeper level than the 30 second soundbyte.

The problem in business is how many people fall into one of these two extremes. Both think their way is right, but the truth is that you need balance. For example, focus is important, but you can't have tunnel vision. You have to be open to new ideas and changes in your markets.

This unfortunately leads back to a thorny problem in the business world – that decisions ultimately require analytical thinking. Smartasses and dumbasses try to avoid this by framing things in terms of their absolutes and ignoring the context inherent in business situations. So if you have ever watched a business make stupid moves and thought "what were they thinking?" The answer is that they weren't.

Balanced thinking is risky because it means acknowledging limits, errors, mistakes, and all the other things we pretend don't exist. We all prefer to think that we are 100% right, not 85% right. We don't want to admit that we have cognitive biases. We don't want to experience cognitive dissonance. We don't want to question the boss or our friends. We don't want to show others what we don't know. And as a result we pay the price of mediocre decision making.

I must confess, reluctantly, that I don't know the best way to deal with smartasses and dumbasses. The only thing that comes to mind is to make them write down their thoughts and decisions, an idea I stole from Laurence Haughton's book. The writing process often forces people to think through their positions, and perhaps by doing so a smartass or dumbass will realize their folly. So for now I'll turn to you for your thoughts about working with these kinds of people. Comments and stories are welcome and appreciated. After all, you are helping me (and the readers) learn something.