Top 10 Reasons Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

Last Updated Sep 23, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

Why Smart People Do Dumb ThingsReaders always seem disappointed that I haven't written any books yet. Well, I could definitely write one about why smart people do dumb things. And not just about others, either. I've got plenty of personal knowledge on the subject, if you know what I mean.

Luckily, I'm not in the "dumb" spotlight today. That distinction goes to HP's hapless board of directors for:
  • Firing CEO Mark Hurd over a sex scandal that never really happened, then
  • Hiring Leo Apotheker, who nearly destroyed SAP and had just been fired by the software giant, then
  • Approving Apotheker's crazy plan to turn the world's largest technology and computer company into a second-rate software developer, then, a month later,
  • Firing Apotheker and replacing him with board director Meg Whitman who has zero enterprise, IT, or turnaround experience

Sometimes I feel conflicted about challenging the strategies and decisions of smart, talented, experienced CEOs and boards. Then I remember why I can do that. Because, the only real difference between them and me is that I'm objective and they're not.

And, if I'm doing my job right, I'm not falling prey to any one of the ...

Top 10 Reasons Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

  • They're too close to the situation. Lack of objectivity or perspective is probably the most common reason, but not the only one, by any means.
  • They're in uncharted territory. People tend to forget that intelligence or experience doesn't necessarily translate from one situation or company to the next, as we discussed in Carol Bartz and the CEO's Dilemma. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • They're distracted. They've got other things or priorities on their mind and they're just not paying attention. Sometimes, it's that simple. Like Occam's Razor says, all things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the right one.
  • They've made up their mind based on limited data. Ever try to have an objective, intelligent discussion with someone who's already made up his mind about something? Didn't turn out too well, did it?
  • Their assumptions are flawed. As a really smart high-tech CEO once said to me, most mistakes are the result of bad assumptions. It's true. Every conclusion and decision is based on assumptions. The logic can be perfect, but if the underlying assumptions are flawed, all bets are off.
  • They feel like it. People have a nasty habit of connecting behavior and decision-making with thinking, reasoning, and logic. That's just not the way it is. Both thoughts and feelings play a role in everything we do, and the split varies constantly. So, a smart person can do a dumb thing if the mood is right, so to speak. That's usually followed by a smartass like me saying, "He should have known better."
  • They're panicking. Emotion to the extreme, usually fear or anxiety, drives the fight or flight response and, sometimes, behavior or decision-making that may, in hindsight, prove unwise, to put it nicely.
  • The second law of thermodynamics. In the physical world, entropy tends to increase. Even biological organisms obey physical laws. People are no different. Smart decisions tend to bring order to chaos; dumb decisions tend to have the opposite effect. Thus, smart decisions are less likely and harder to achieve. In other words, s**t happens.
  • People change. People age, things change. Our ideals, goals, motives, mental state, and of course, behavior and actions, all change over time. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders calls it Time The Avenger: "Nobody's permanent; everything's on loan here."
  • They're off their meds or their rocker. What, you think I'm kidding? You think really smart people can't have psychological problems, temporary mental lapses, brain farts? Haven't you ever said someone's "lost his mind" or is "off her rocker?" Then there's the whole meds thing. They can be just off them or just on them? Either one can trigger erratic behavior.

    The one thing virtually all smart people have in common when they're doing something dumb is that they're almost never aware of it. Obviously, or they wouldn't do it. For example, I'm virtually sure that nobody on HP's board thinks they're doing anything dumb today by making Whitman CEO. But I'd imagine they can all look back at the decision to hire Apotheker and think, wow, that was dumb. Or can they?

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