When companies look to hire people, they always want to hire the most intelligent people they can find or afford. Many companies try to recruit from the top universities and colleges. Others snatch away the top performers in other companies. But what exactly do we mean by intelligence? And how can you leverage intelligent people for business success?
Intelligence is frequently stereotyped in caricatures such as the absent-minded professor, the mad scientist, the black hat hacker, and so forth. Such exaggerated images fail to convey how intelligence is a combination of many different aspects. Here are some characteristics I can think of:
- Ability to grasp information from data: Two people may receive the same information, but one of them is able to comprehend it better and derive meaning from it. This is not necessarily a function of past knowledge, but an ability to recognize patterns in the data and derive conclusions. A person with this ability is best suited to work in analytical situations, being able to process huge amounts of information and make sense from them.
- Ability to remember information: This is perhaps a misunderstood aspect of intelligence, and usually negatively associated with exam cramming. However, you can notice differences there too. Some people are able to cram more information than others. Some are able to remember relevant information from long ago. Memory is an essential part of the brain function. A person who is able to operate with large volumes of relevant information easily accessible while working can be highly efficient. Such a person is well suited for technical work. For example, a software developer who is very familiar with the language API’s.
- Ability to juggle multiple things: A good soccer player can run down the field with the ball, and also simultaneously remember exactly when and where to pass the ball, because while running, he can visualize where the other players are. Or think of how an aircraft controller works. Many people break down when confronted with multiple things at the same time. The person with the ability to multi-task revels in such situations.
- Ability to concentrate on one thing: This seems the opposite of the previous point. But in some cases, the ability to juggle also requires the ability to tune out certain things. The soccer player in the previous example tunes out the thousands of cheering fans, his personal life and whatever happened 5 minutes ago as he runs. The aircraft controller shuts out all the other distractions in the room. By only focusing on the essential, the entire brainpower is devoted to the main task at hand.
- Ability to apply solutions to problems: Most people associate intelligence with problem-solving, but it is not the solution per-se that displays intelligence, but it is the process. Intelligence is the ability to match and apply strategies to solving problems. All strategies have to be learnt, but some people do better than others at understanding when to use them. For example, most accountants are familiar with the various strategies to minimize taxes, but some are just better at actually doing it.
- Ability to devise new solutions: When faced with a unique problem, a person with this ability can come up with new ways of solving problems. For example, Leibniz and Newton (independently) invented calculus to solve their mathematical (and physics) challenges. The key difference with the previous point is that a person without this skill will get stuck when faced with new challenges, even though they can use the strategies they know to devise a new solution.
- Ability to imagine: This goes beyond logical ability to devise solutions. People with this skill think unconventionally. Their ideas do not come out of some combination of putting existing ideas together or improving them. People working in creative fields are good examples of this. Another example is the discovery of the ring structure of benzene. Without such people, innovation would always be incremental and human progress would not be where it is.
In many cases, companies measure only a few of these aspects. Some of these are difficult to measure in a typical interview. For example, asking people to solve puzzles in an interview may only be measuring their ability to remember information, if they already know the answer. But I still think it is worthwhile to think about ways to understand where a person stands with regard to these traits.
For example, you are hiring a developer. If you look at the previous abilities, here is what they mean for that role:
- Ability to grasp information from data: Understand specifications and other written documents.
- Ability to remember information: Remember programming standards and libraries, and also important information conveyed through conversations.
- Ability to juggle multiple things: Work in multiple modules at the same time.
- Ability to concentrate on one thing: Spend vast amounts of uninterrupted time building programs, thus increasing quality.
- Ability to apply solutions to problems: Know when to use which best practices and design patterns.
- Ability to devise new solutions: Create new programming modules that solve common problems faced by other developers.
- Ability to imagine: Design better. Debug better.
And this goes for other roles in the company.