Wednesday 23 February 2011

Intelligence as a System

I continue to annoy friends and family with ridiculous questions about Intelligence. I am getting some confused looks as well as some illuminating answers:
  • Intelligence as the ability to make good decisions
  • Intelligence as the ability to learn
  • Intelligent people aren’t always very practical
  • Intelligent people have an unusually large vocabulary (really?)
  • There are many different sorts of intelligence.
For a word that’s in such common use, it’s amazing how we can’t quite put our fingers on what intelligence is.

This morning as I was driving to work I was pondering the Intelligence question. I was deep in thought as I drove through the wet and windy February weather. By the time I got out of the car I was miles away (in thought; I hadn’t lost my way) and was brought back down to earth with a beeping sound. My car was talking to me. It reminded me to switch my lights off.

What an intelligent little car, I thought to myself. With all my education, years of experience, and perhaps a small amount of something that might vaguely be described as intelligence, I would certainly have forgotten and left the headlights on. But my car had this particularly useful bit of intelligence built into it.

You may be thinking that this isn’t so remarkable, and in one way you are right. Once some bright spark had realised just how easily otherwise intelligent people can leave their lights on, and the technology became available to create the warning, the rest was relatively mechanical. I’ve written before about just how intelligent some cars have become, and the same might be said for washing machines, sports watches and many other devices that are now part of our normal lives.

Yet we forget how much freedom and intellectual space they give us. It made me wonder how much intelligence is in other systems such as checklists, software, maps and the like, that we also dismiss without a thought. Intelligence as a system places a great deal less responsibility on the individual and raises standards for the many.

Friday 18 February 2011

Are you Intelligent?

Which would you prefer? That people think of you as being intelligence, talented and bright? Or methodical, disciplined and thorough?

I’m guessing most of you think of yourself as intelligent. Like drivers, we all think we are in the 10% when it comes to driving ability. And none of us like to think we are stupid …

Yet intelligence is a curious quality. Intuitively know when we meet an intelligent person. We don’t need to ask them to do tests, or perform calculations. Somehow we can see intelligence in their eyes and hear it in what they say. However, we struggle to explain what we mean by intelligence. Like a fine wine or great art, we know it when we see it. (Of course, schools and universities test for a certain type of intelligence with examinations, but history has demonstrated that many intelligent and capable people have little aptitude for passing exams).

But what about the methodical, disciplined and thorough lot? The well-organised brigade who can always find things and have the right information to hand?

Even though the two are not mutually exclusive, and many intelligent people are also disciplined and methodical, it is not their organisational abilities that grab the headlines.

A visit to the war cabinet rooms in London this week made me think about the complex nature of intelligence, and what is required to outsmart the competition (whether in war or in business). Churchill’s brilliance (although he famously struggled with exams) and the military’s great organisational abilities, were clearly on show. Maps lined almost every wall covered with pins and wool showing enemy locations and manoeuvres. Graphs and carefully stencilled statistics were also pinned to the walls; not hidden away in ring binders.

Military Intelligence has come to mean information and data rather than thinking ability. When the stakes are as high as the independence of a nation, it’s interesting to reflect on whether it was the intelligent, talented and bright bunch who carried the day. Or the methodical, disciplined and thorough crew.

Monday 14 February 2011

Running Lessons

With five very short weeks before the Reading Half Marathon, I met up with my (virtual) running buddy on Saturday to compare notes. I say virtual, because it has been almost a year since we met in person – even though we’ve exchanged many email excuses for why we couldn’t make a running session!

We both bemoaned a whole number of well thought out and credible excuses – including injuries and some big life changing stuff that got thrown at us. But the fact remains that during a full year, neither of us lost any weight, neither of us is as fit as we should be, and neither of us feels prepared for this half marathon. That’s despite a year of so-called preparation. Wow – how could that have happened?

We agreed we’d learnt some lessons. So here’s my list:
  • Running isn’t a substitute for eating well. I have to eat sensibly if I want to lose weight – running won’t melt excess weight away. I hate to say it, but I think this might be an age thing.
  • To get better at running I have to show up: at practice, on a Saturday morning, for races, for training runs.
  • A great coach helps a lot. Providing I show up on a Wednesday…. thanks Tom!
  • Having a committed running buddy helps a lot. Doing it together is always easier; thanks Jacqui!
  • Get the right kit. Running shoes that don’t rub, light-weight jacket for the rain (how useless is it that I still won’t go running when it’s raining?), warm weather kit, the right socks, a calibrated distance measurer (and I thought it was a cheap sport!!!).
  • Make a checklist for race day
  • Keep a training log
  • Have races in the diary to keep focus and momentum on training
  • It takes time and patience to form a new running habit; to lose weight, to get fitter, to build up stamina, to get to like (ha ha!) running.
Looking back at my notes before the Henley half marathon, I weighed 5 kilos less, and was running a 5K distance 5 minutes faster than I’m running it right now. Crumbs, that’s a bit of a wakeup call. Time to put those lessons into practice!

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Mad Men: lessons from episode one

Despite dropping too many hints to everyone I know and I few people I do not, no one bought me Mad Men Series 1-3 for Christmas. A disappointment that could only be rectified by an overnight Amazon Prime delivery. Needs must (sigh). The 1950’s would have been as shocked by Amazon as we are at their bad boy attitudes.

The opening episode saw the heart-stoppingly suave Don Draper fretting about cigarette advertising. Readers Digest say that cigarettes might be bad for you. His Lucky Strike executives are coming in for a creative meeting. He has no idea what to do. Draper is in a fix.

He does two things that are instructive. Firstly, he talks to people about smoking; anyone, anywhere. Because he is Don Draper and he spends a lot of time in bars, he talks to the waiter who offers low-key but pertinent insights. Secondly, he talks to his scary research lady about her scary research.

In the meeting, when the client turns to hear his brilliant ideas, he still hasn’t got a clue what to suggest. He thinks the research is stupid, and the problem insolvable. Why would anyone buy something that might harm them?

Of course, we know the answer to the conundrum. People don’t care that cigarettes are dangerous. They just want to enjoy one of life’s pleasures; which Draper figures out just in time to keep the account. He lets every other cigarette be dangerous - Lucky Strike is the one that contains “toasted tobacco”.

As it turns out, the research was absolutely right and what Draper had discarded turned out to be the key to unlocking his creativity. Although Mad Men is fiction (or is it?) it is based on (some) real people and very real advertising and marketing issues. Which is perhaps what makes it so watchable.

Many great advertising and marketing people have pointed out that you need to understand both your product and your market in order to come up with a compelling proposition. Draper makes it look easy, Ogilvy admitted it was hard work and tedious. Both knew it was necessary.

Friday 4 February 2011

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it

Does a ruler set your heart racing? Would a new protractor make you feel a little giddy? Did you go into maths lessons with a hop, skip and jump when you were at school? No? Well me neither, but that doesn’t mean to say that measurement isn’t one of the most important aspects of the highly sophisticated lives we live.

Lord Kelvin pointed out that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. Those carefully chosen words seem self-evident to me, yet measurement is not something we accept naturally. Much human communication is though words, expression, tone or voice, touch and emotion – all of which are difficult to measure.

But all great advances in human endeavours have come about through our ability to measure things. The list is very long: healthcare, safety, architecture, transport, energy efficiency, food quality, and much more.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see what might be the world’s oldest clock, which could date from the 14th century. It currently stands in the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral which is well worth a visit even if you have no interest in early time pieces. Of course in the 14th century, and many years afterwards, accurate timekeeping was not possible. If you don’t know what time it is, you cannot co-ordinate people or events around you or across town. Nor do you know how long things take to do (like cook a soft-boiled egg or travel to Leeds).

Whilst it is interesting to look back at advances in measurement and understand the benefits they have brought, it’s also interesting to think about the things we can’t or don’t measure. Of course that list is a great deal longer than the many things we already measure. From my limited experiments with measuring time spent on different activities (focused work, day dreaming, wandering around) or the number of data-driven decisions we make in a day (not many), I concluded that it is possible to usefully measure more than we currently do, even though it is difficult and somewhat unnatural.

Benjamin Franklin famously tried to measure thirteen things that he considered important: silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, etc. He tracked his adherence to these virtues at least until he was 79 when he wrote about them, and resolved to follow them longer as they had brought him so much happiness. None of them are concepts that lend themselves easily to measurement. Yet if Franklin hadn’t measured his adherence to them, he would probably have forgotten them long before his 21st birthday.

Bernard Shaw once said that all progress depends on the unreasonable man. I suggest he was wrong; progress belongs to the man with a mind to measure.