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 sometimes go a step farther to determine an often-surprising way to capitalize on opportunities.
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 to you to show how you can increase productivity 15% simply by sequencing jobs differently.
The business world is populated by millions of smart people. Education, experience, resources — there are countless people just like us. 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
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 5 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%.
Anyone can be smart. To really succeed, add clever to your skill set.