Watch CBSN Live

Are You Smart, or Clever? Here's How to Be Both

Clever often beats smart. I should know.

Years ago I raced motorcycles. I was good in a small fish, small pond kind of way, winning plenty of races and holding at least one track record (even if only for about two months).

But there was one guy I couldn't beat. Conventional wisdom said I was better: Better equipment, better lap times, confident, and bold in a "sure, I've broken some bones and one shoulder does hang a little lower than the other but hey, chicks dig guys with scars" kind of way... yet he still beat me four races in a row.

Why? I was a smart, experienced rider. He was just as smart -- but he was also clever.

I'll spare you (and my ego) the details and summarize what happened:

  • At the first race I put in a textbook ride. On the last lap he surprised me and passed where I was strongest, killed my drive off the turn, and used lapped traffic to scrape me off my line into the next turn. He won. Lessons learned: 1) Sometimes you are weakest where you think you are strongest, and 2) Throwing a helmet greatly reduces its aesthetic appeal.
  • The next race he jumped out to a big lead and I purposely let him go, figuring he would kill his tires on an unusually abrasive track. Another textbook call, but he took advantage of clear sailing to run perfect, tire-saving lines and beat me by .012 seconds. Lessons learned: 1) Conventional wisdom often produces conventional results, and 2) You can love your tires but they will never love you back.
  • I led the next race, clicked off extremely consistent lap times, rode my own race and stayed within myself... until I had to work too hard in too many corners to pass too many lapped riders and made my back tire look like it ran into a cheese grater with an attitude. He knew the track and the competition better than me and purposely laid back to avoid lapping too many erratic riders too soon. Lessons learned: 1) Your biggest competitor is sometimes not the competition that matters most, and 2) Insulting a slower rider before he takes off his helmet and reveals a small, colored-in, teardrop tattoo below his eye shows a serious disregard for personal safety. (True story.)
  • By the last race he was completely inside my head. All I remember is I finished second. Lesson learned: Sometimes the best memories are the memories you manage to forget.
Biggest lesson learned? Clever often beats smart.
For the sake of argument, let's define smart as educated, trained, experienced, seasoned. Smart people can evaluate a situation and determine the right thing to do.

Clever takes smart a step farther, adding insight and a dash of the unexpected. Clever people evaluate a situation, determine the smart thing to do, and then go a step farther to determine a sometimes surprising way to capitalize on an opportunity.

In business terms, smart is the guy down the hall with the MBA who analyzes and optimizes your supply chain because you assigned him the project. Clever is the gal on the shop floor who comes forward to show how you can increase productivity 15% simply by sequencing jobs differently. (Another true story.)

The business world is populated by millions of smart people. Education, experience, resources -- there are countless smart people. To set yourself apart it's not enough to simply be smart. You also must be clever.

Fortunately, we can all be clever: It just takes the right frame of mind. Click to the next page to learn five ways you can proactively increase your cleverness quotient.

NEXT -> Learn how to be more clever

The key to making clever decisions and finding clever strategies is to view problems from a different perspective. Necessity is the mother of cleverness, so creating a little artificial necessity automatically stimulates cleverness.

Here are five easy ways:

1. Think of the worst that could happen. What if you lose your biggest customer? What if you lose your job? What if your industry tanks? The answers could indicate a great change in overall strategy or uncover unexpected opportunities.
2. Pretend you're out of money. Solid cash flow is great, but a steady stream of revenue can also hide opportunities to save money or optimize processes. If you ran out of money, what would you do? Think through as many scenarios as possible, then implement the best ideas.
3. Pretend you can't follow the rules. Every business has rules, both written and unwritten. As individuals we all follow external and self-imposed rules. But what would you do if you couldn't follow company or personal guidelines to solve a problem? What if you couldn't ask your boss for permission? What if you couldn't ask your partner for help? What if your policy manual suddenly went missing? Tap your inner Jack Sparrow, play pirate, and mentally break a few rules. You will probably find that some of the "rules" you follow aren't rules at all; they're just conventional wisdom.

4. Pretend you only have five minutes to solve a problem. Speed is also the mother of cleverness. Pick a problem and give yourself five minutes to reach a decision. Pretend, say, you only have five minutes to decide what type of business to start. If you had to decide right now what would you choose? Most of us play out too many "What if?" scenarios for our own good. Often a snap decision is the right decision because it cuts through the clutter.

5. Pretend perfect is achievable. This is my favorite. For example, most of us tend to view improvement from a percentage-gain perspective: Increase productivity by 5%, reduce cost by 4%... we look for incremental gains rather than perfection. That's what we're trained to do. But what if you aimed for perfect? What would be required in order to achieve perfection?

A machine operator and I took this approach with incredible results. While discussing an upcoming budget cycle, I didn't ask him the tried and true, "Do you have any ideas for how we can raise productivity by 3% next year?" Instead, I asked, "What if you had to make sure your machine never went down? What would we need to do?"

Over the course of an hour he listed every conceivable reason his machine jammed, mis-fed, timed out, shut down due to mechanical or electrical failures... and we figured out concrete ways to avoid every one. Then we implemented those ideas. Was it easy? Absolutely not. We changed a number of processes, put one employee on a different lunch schedule so he could perform preventive maintenance while the line was idle, increased usage of a number of component parts... the list goes on and on.

We didn't reach perfection, but after three months productivity was up 32% and the ROI on cost added to the process was over 800%.

Smart? Sure. Clever too.

Anyone can be smart. To really succeed, add clever to your skill set.


Photo courtesy flickr user AustralianSuperbikes, CC 2.0
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue