Thursday, October 23, 2008

Intelligence - Part IV

I have no idea how many parts there will be. I’ll just keep talking. (Cue snark from readers)
I have been converging on an idea of intelligence that includes adaptability, not just pattern-recognition. So, who’s got it? Who can we point to, especially among people running the companies we work for and invest in, or running the areas we live in, that we want to follow?

It is much harder to tell than I thought at first glance. Adventurous, flexible thinkers sometimes turn out to be the worst at adapting, because they become attached to their own ideas, those patterns they cleverly saw before the rest of us. Even retrospective analysis doesn’t help as much as we’d like. A leader can be the only cow in the pasture who recognises what the new slaughterhouse is for, the only one who figures out that the new paradigm is Escape or Die, but still pick a plan for escape that doesn’t work. A congential radical who loves to throw out the conventional wisdom might rebuild from scratch when only 20% of the old method needed to be abandoned. Heck, some people just get lucky and look like geniuses. If you interview the CEO’s that succeeded or the people next door who became millionaires, they will give you irrelevant advice. At best, they will identify some things that are necessary but not sufficient for success. The proof of this is that other people in their cohort did exactly the same things as they advise but did not succeed. Seven habits of successful people – except that a lot of less-successful people have those habits, too. Five steps for church growth – but a lot of churches did the same things and didn’t grow. Retrospective analysis hides more than half the data. So even success is not an indicator of adaptability, nor failure a disqualifier.

Still, I should make some attempt, no matter how flawed, to guess at who might be good at this. David Petraeus looks good at the moment. He took a stalemated partial success in Iraq and turned it into a victory with a change in tactics. Better still, everything he says suggests that he still sees the need to adapt and readapt to changing situations. We back home are ready to oversimplify and say “Yippee! We’ve won! Let’s go fishin’!” and Petraeus is still adapting. But if the situation changes again, does the brilliant general have the ability to see that the new old way isn’t working and change again? We don’t know.

That we can offer only a tentative grade on George Bush after 8 years of his presidency highlights how difficult and ambiguous the question is. I rate him below-average on this score. It is true that he has had to make adjustments so enormous that few others will see their like, and done that well. But readjusting to changing circumstances has been less good. Politics comes into play, because even a minor adjustment was pounced on by the opposition as an admission that the administration had failed originally. One more circumstance to adjust to, I suppose. But deciding that the original plan was good – the original SecDef, the original SoS, the long trail through the UN resolutions and the Iraqi elections and the flypaper theory – I don’t think he adjusted to these well. I think George Bush has responded to economic situations well, even brilliantly at first. But the readjustments have not been there. The ability to say “erase the board, rethink everything” has not been evident.

We also don’t know – at least, I don’t - if the ability generalises well, if the researcher who bounces back professionally when his developments become obsolete can also rearrange his life around the sudden financial reverses.

1 comment:

jlbussey said...

I just started "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. He gives another possible definition of intelligence as "making correct predictions in pursuit of a goal." Interesting intersection with your discussion. I'll have to re-read "The Black Swan" when I'm done with it, to really cement all of this.