The Smartest Guy in the Room…

In product development, we like our engineers smart.  Engineering is after all the problem solving function of the organization, and, the more intelligence that an individual brings to their knowledge work role, the better.

Broadly categorizing, our organizations are divisible into two dominant cultural types, control cultures and achievement cultures.  And each of these aligns best with organizations of a particular strategic focus; control cultures suit cost driven operational efficiency organizations and achievement cultures align with knowledge generating, product leadership organizations.

Achievement cultures also go by another named, Competence cultures, so dubbed by William Schneider in his book The Re-engineering Alternative.  The Latin verb competere is the root of the word competence, as well as the root of the word compete.  In achievement based cultures, our success in the marketplace is based upon an internal competition through which we develop the core competencies which represent the core of our go-to-market strength.  The internal competition which is at the heart of this is the competition of ideas, the battle of potential solutions to problems from which our standard knowledge is developed and evolves.

A lurking danger in engineering environments is the expectation that the really smart guys (apologies to women engineers; in this narrative you are considered one of the guys) will serve as a source of instant answers.   I once had a CEO who chastised an engineering manager because his organization was buying books, with the implication that they were not ‘fully formed’ and therefore of inferior value.  In engineering organizations, the end result of these expectations and their rewards is a competition (competere) called the Smartest Guy in the Room, which works against the competition of ideas that drives market success.

In the Smartest Guy in the Room game, the winner is not always the engineer with the best idea, but is often the engineer with a good idea, who is also the best debater.  Ultimately, in the competition of ideas, a decision must be made.  Someone needs to parse through all the potential solutions and choose.  It helps immensely if the person making the decision is smart; it helps more if they are wise.

An Achievement Culture needs to be a learning culture.  Our standards are the best of what we know.  Our competition of ideas generates knowledge, enables learning and leads to the establishment of new standards.  Learning requires an openness to new ideas; the Smartest Guy in the Room game is based on the strength with which you can defend your own ideas, a position that closes off learning.  A wise friend and engineering manager shared with me that he recognized when someone’s intellectual position was failing.  It was at the point when logic gave way to emotionalism.

We are knowledge workers.  We learned what we know.  And as Drucker suggests, the environment that promotes continuous learning is a key to motivating knowledge workers.  When we lack the wisdom to recognize the value of our contribution to the competition of ideas, and instead focus on winning the debate, we close off learning and devalue our contribution.  It goes back to the aphorism that a man or woman can accomplish great things if they don’t care who gets credit for it.

If you find yourself playing the Smartest Guy in the Room game, try shifting over to the Best Learner in the Room game.  It will prove a beneficial move for your, your team, and your organization.