How to be more intelligent
The 4 Fs
According to evolutionary biologists, all life forms exhibit the same four drives. These being to fight, flee, feed and ‘reproduce’. I would add ‘freeze’, and in relation to social animals, ‘friend’ (verb). Everything our ancestors did and everything we do today is underpinned by these instinctive motivations.
In essence, human existence boils down to living long enough to reproduce. A large part of staying alive requires us to handle threatening situations intelligently. Similarly, this applies in respect of opportunities. We have become tier one predators because of our optimised cognition. A large element of that includes our ability to collaborate at scale, hence my addition of ‘friends’. Though you might reflect on your definition of friends.
In times of peril – ”Sorry to hear that 😞 ”, might be stretching the definition of friendship.
Cognition relates to our ability to process sensory messages and to then act accordingly. We acquire data from the environment through our senses, and the ensuing emotions. We use this data in conjunction with memories of past experiences to build a mental model of reality. This enables us to decide on our next move and in turn act. Whether you are an amoeba or a special forces operative, your nervous system continually observes what is happening in your environment, tries to make sense of it, makes decisions based on the current situation and then acts. A failure or weakness in any of these areas could prove fatal.
We can distil the nervous systems activity into the following:
EQ – (Emotional intelligence) – SENSE: The ability to sense what is happening in the environment. This has a social component – detecting minor changes in facial muscles. NB. EQ is not about processing, it is about sensing.
MQ – (Mental intelligence) – DECIDE: The ability to make sense of the incoming data (it’s likely a frown) and to then decide how to respond to it (suggest another genre of film to watch).
PQ – (Physical intelligence) – ACT: The ability to act on your decision (Asking, “what would you like to watch?”). Physical intelligence covers every aspect of movement, including your vocal cords. The pitch of your voice may be just as powerful as your legs or your fists in a physical altercation.
Another characteristic of living organisms is the focus on conserving energy. Not an issue, when you have easy access to carb-rich processed ‘food’. But when you aspire to being an apex predator this becomes important. Glossing over the more nuanced historical details, you and your fellow Homo Sapiens are spying on a group of Neanderthals and thinking how unpleasant it would be to take them on ‘mano a mano’, given their muscularity/strength advantage and their big intimidating eyes.
However, we are here today and they are not. Having big muscles and big eyes has a significant energy cost and that means less energy is available for sensing and decision making. Given the conditions at the time, our blend of EQ, MQ and PQ, gave us an advantage.
It would be incorrect to say that Neanderthals, were less intelligent than us. It would be more accurate to say that our intelligences were more optimal for a particular set of conditions.
The natural extension of this argument is that humans are no more intelligent than say a chicken.
A chicken is perfectly optimised for its environment, foraging in the woods. Less so in a battery farm.
The cognitive organisation
I am of the belief that we need to build our organisations to reflect the living world, given that organisations typically have a significant living component (the staff). I have been promoting the idea of a super-resilient organisation for some time.
Thus organisations need to have the ability to sense, decide and act in accordance with the current conditions. Given the increasing uncertainty and volatility in the market, this requires a shift in emphasis from strategic planning to situational awareness. Tomorrow doesn’t matter if you don’t make it through today.
Thus the goal of an organisation is not so much to win the game by becoming the largest (look what happened to the brontosaurus), but to stay in the game by adapting quickly to the ever-changing conditions.
People AND tech
Technology has a role to play here:
- Sensing – Eg. IoT, augmented reality.
- Deciding – Eg. analytics / AI / collaboration tech.
- Acting – Eg. 3D printing, data-driven innovation, ecommerce.
People also have a key role to play in each of these areas. Keep in mind, that people management is an energy management game. Energy diverted away from creating and delivering differentiated customer experiences that command a high margin / mass appeal, or both, is wasted energy.
Plug the leakage
So job number one for leaders is to plug the cognitive leaks within the organisation. Examples of such leakage sources include:
- Poor management.
- Frustrating IT systems.
- Poor workplace design.
Having plugged the leaks, we are then into the business of seeking marginal cognitive gains.
Knowing all of this, you can develop some sensible policies around:
- Mental wellness.
- Hybrid working.
Each of us will have our own intelligences profile (EQ, MQ and PQ). However our background will shape these. People from a given group will for example sense that world in a particular way or respond to an opportunity likemindedly. This would in fact be an argument be an argument against diversity if the future was predictable and we needed a single optimised cognitive profile. But we have said goodbye to the steady state environment of the industrial era. So we need a diverse set of profiles, so that no profile dominates to the extent that it runs the organisation into the ground because it was not optimised for a particular game changing event.
Some organisations seem to enjoy squeezing their people dry. It’s as if they believe that getting the most out of them in terms of energy is the same as getting the best out of them. But that’s not the case. Stressed out, sleep deprived graduates become increasingly stupid as more and more of their energy is diverted away from creative / constructive endeavours and towards trying to remain functional.
Cortisol is not a recommended dietary stable for sustainable productivity.
More generally, the mental wellness of your people is paramount to harnessing their cognitive capacity in a market-pleasing manner. This is not so much a molly coddle charter, resilience plays a large part in this. In any case, if you think that your staff’s financial, health and relationship concerns are not your problem, you will need to think again.
We are on the verge, hopefully, of leaving our open prison model of existence. Though a return to ‘normality’ is unlikely. Leaders are now faced with deciding whether to drag everyone back to the office, let them work from home (or wherever) or mix it up. At this point, I would like to snuff out the emerging theme of hybrid leadership. Hopefully having read this far you will recognise that the term implies an ultra-superficial grasp of what we require in respect of leadership going forward.
The decision boils down to what environment provides the optimum conditions to harness the cognitive capacity of the staff. This of course is context sensitive. Deep thinking is difficult on an open plan trading floor. Serendipitous encounters are less likely when working from a one room apartment. Google realises that the cognitive cost of commuting is more than offset by the cognitive mining capacity of its offices / cognitive gymnasiums. Goldman Sachs perhaps realises that the best way to sweat the staff is to put them amongst other sweating staff.
As an aside, we seem to have nailed working from home. I believe we need to formalise ‘homing from work’.
This is perhaps a lot to take in. But at the same time it is very simple. Sense your environment, consider your options and act with minimal energy investment. I believe this equally applies to organisations in today’s uncertain world.
Should you ever encounter a muscle-bound individual, struggling to move in their tightfitting clothing, whilst wearing dark sunglasses and with their headphones in situ, trying to navigate a crowded street, you might now be tempted to offer them some biological lifestyle advice. Don’t!
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