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Stupid Strategy

2010 June 27

Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

In a similar vein, I often tell my analysts that I want them to be dumber.  The problem is that the people I hire tend to have achieved some measure of academic success, which they attained by impressing idle professors how sophisticated their thinking was.

Stupid people, on the other hand, look for what is obvious and useful and therefore can often accomplish more.  Over the years, I’ve come up with some ways to help smart people to become dumber.  Here’s a few of them:

Less Numbers – More Math

In developing a business strategy, you have to wade through a lot of data.  It’s an activity that is sometimes enlightening, but almost always painful.  After a while, your eyes hurt and your head throbs.

I never could make sense of people who  stuffed as much information into charts as possible.  Nevertheless, smart people often want to show how complicated it all is, so they not only cram in plenty of numbers, but also include lots of arrows that have the annoying habit of pointing in opposite directions.

A stupid person would never do this, because they would want to minimize the amount of information they would have to deal with.  There are a number of fairly simple mathematical concepts that allow you to be a whole lot dumber and understand much more.

Dumb people have the good sense to take short cuts; they’re not trying to prove how smart they are.

Lean Back

Things go up or down, left or right or they don’t go anywhere at all.

I’m amazed at how many smart people miss that simple and obvious fact and instead treat charts as if they were Rorschach tests.  They pride themselves in their ability to divine things in them that nobody else can see. ( We don’t have a name for this in marketing, but in finance these people are called Elliot Wave theorists.)

The truth is if what you’re looking for isn’t fairly clear it either isn’t really there or you just don’t understand what it is yet.

A really simple way to correct for this tendency (we all have it) is to simply lean back from your screen.  If you can’t see anything, reformat or move on and stop wasting your time.  Stupid people know this and just look for what’s obvious.

Aspect Seeing

When Ludwig Wittgenstein wasn’t reading cheap detective novels or watching cowboy movies, he mostly liked to chide other philosophers.  Much of the time, he complained about their need to find universal rules in everything.

He saw this as causing unnecessarily confusing and advocated what he called aspect seeing.  To get an idea of what he meant, take a look at the famous Klitschko brothers  below.

They are obviously very similar.  Both are big, strong guys with dark hair who are world champion boxers and share the same mother and father (even having met them both on several occasions, I still sometimes have trouble remembering which one is which).

The problem comes when you try to identify what is the “essence” of Klitschko or the “Klitschkoness” that is essential to their being.  If you just accept that one is Vitaly and one is Vladimir and leave it at that there is no confusion.  Wittgenstein called this “letting the fly out of the bottle.”

A stupid person would never make such a smart mistake.  That takes years of studying and a very senior title or advanced degree.

Have a Point

The basic job of strategy is to provide a plan of action (i.e. getting things done for a specific purpose).  Unless you are a professional researcher, your job isn’t to perform intellectual exercises, but to help further specific goals.

I’m sure Napoleon thought it would be interesting to go to Moscow (although having spent time there myself, I suspect he was disappointed).  Clearly he felt it would impress his friends and neighbors, but none of that mattered when his troops were starving because his supply lines were overextended.

Strategy only works if it can be clearly explained to the people who will actually do the work of carrying it out.  Therefore, it is always a good idea to have a point.  It makes all those smart thoughts so much more interesting and useful to those you are presenting it to.

Try it, you might like it!

Stupid Geniuses

Great things are not achieved not by making simple things complex, but by making complex things simple.

Of course there have been extremely intelligent people who have accomplished great things.  People like Euler, Gauss and von Neumann were prodigies who could speak half a dozen languages, had photographic memories and amazing computational abilities.  These men made serious contributions.

Yet compare them to Kant, Darwin and Einstein, none of whom displayed much early promise and all of whom revolutionized how we look at the world.  Richard Feynman, who even other great scientists considered a magician, had an IQ of only 125 – above average but by no means unusual.

G.H. Hardy, who discovered Ramanujan and was himself considered one of the great mathematicians of his day, wrote in his memoirs, “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.”

Let’s take him at his word and dumb it down a bit.

– Greg

56 Responses
  1. December 29, 2010

    Thanks, Tyrone. You have a happy New Year too!

    – Greg

  2. May 4, 2011

    Vitaly, good to see you on here! I hope things are well.

    Greg (Project Syndicate)

  3. January 3, 2012

    Of course, we’re talking about finding the best balance given the tradeoffs involved, and that’s a challenge given a single expression of something that encounters a wild diversity of listeners. Finding the center of the bell curve is hard, but some people just don’t try.

    Of course, complexity is often part of the process in finding simplicity, like all the math that went into arriving at e=mc2. There are times when one is thinking out loud with colleagues, and times when one has it finally sorted out and is sharing it generally. And times when you are thinking out loud with the wrong people listening. 🙂

    In any case, you’ve provided a great reminder for us to keep trying for the best balance, and being mindful of who is listening. Your post got Yojimbo’d. (It rates big! 🙂

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Mark. Have a great year!

    – Greg

  4. July 11, 2012

    I would add one caveat to your final point…to complexify the issue just slightly 😉

    Kant, Darwin and Einstein did not take straight paths from complexity to simplicity. Each had to first complexify his field of study, to broaden his perspective and in so doing grasp some central insight. It is the central insight that allows complexity to be compressed into simple principles, but those central insights cannot not be grasped via a “simple” approach to the subject matter.

    This point becomes clear if we add one more dimension to the analysis. The worst work is that which is complicated but still shallow. The best examples–Kant, Darwin, Einstein, etc–are simple and deep, but even they had to pass through complicated and deep along the way.

    Greg Reply:

    That’s true. As I wrote in another post, simplicity isn’t so simple:

    – Greg

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