There are plenty of opinions about what makes for the smartest people. I give more credence to those who judge from a place of having intense smarts and oversize results to match. Enter the opinion of one Jeff Bezos (an opinion that fellow columnist Jessica Stillman had an interesting take on). The Amazon founder and CEO paid a visit to the headquarters of Basecamp (the maker of an accountability and communications application). During an open Q&A session, he commented on what he thought made for the smartest people.
It’s not the answer you’d expect.
Bezos said the smartest individuals, the people who most often got things right, were most often wrong.
Jeff Bezos thinks consistency of thought is a bad thing
He told the crowd that people who end up being right a lot often change their minds along the way in getting to that right answer. They do so because they get and accept new information, they revisit their understanding and knowledge, they find holes in their own proposed solutions, and stay open to new ideas and contradictions and to those who challenge their viewpoint.
They still have a well-formulated point of view, but they view it as temporary rather than permanent. He went on to say that is was perfectly healthy, and even necessary in today’s fast pace of change, to have a new idea that contradicts a previous idea you had.
He said that those who are just plain wrong a lot (and not wrong on the path toward being right) are those who obsess over details that only support their point of view and that can’t/don’t/won’t step out of the details to see the bigger picture from multiple angles.
Some of the best leaders I’ve worked for had this trait. They were decisive when they made the call. But they carefully set parameters for when a decision could be revisited. Which leads us to the next point.
Be careful about taking Bezos’s intriguing thought out the window
Bezos is right. The people with the highest IQs are smart enough to realize they aren’t smart enough to always have the right answer from the get-go. But, at some point, employees need consistency and a decision that sticks from their leader.
I experienced one leader who wouldn’t change his mind for anything. Just on principle. It was painful, because new data would come in that would have the team questioning the decision he made, but to avoid upheaval, he shut down any further discussion once he made the decision. The team would grow alarmed they were going down the wrong path and would thus try to subvert the decision already made.
It was chaos.
On the other hand, I also worked for a leader who bounced all over the place, reopening a decision all the time on even the whiff of a countering thought or idea. He feared making the wrong decision and doubted himself and so let the latest firm opinion influence which way he was bending that week.
It was chaos.
So which leader was more wrong?
You can see where this is going. The answer lies, as it so often does, somewhere in the middle, in a balanced approach. It’s absolutely critical to stay open minded, flexible, and to check your ego at the door to reverse your previous opinion if warranted. But at some point, you and the team must lock in and move forward.
Here’s a simple trick I used to use to maintain the right balance. I took an old saying and put a twist on it, sharing it with my team as a mantra: Debate 70: Decide 30: Commit 100.
It means that we first allotted a certain amount of time to decide on something important. We’d spend 70 percent of that time debating differing points of view in a healthy, productive fashion and 30 percent of our time carefully funneling toward a decision. Then, after we’d decided (again allowing for a fair amount of back and forth per Bezos’s point), we 100 percent committed to the decision. Debate. Decide. Commit.
We set very strict rules at that point for what could open up a decision made; it was primarily only new and obvious pivotal data that could do so.
The approach really worked. People felt heard but also felt the herd was moving forward. You can apply this approach too to get the best out of the spirit of what Bezos said.