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David B. Black Headshot

Nerds and the Yakkity Yaks

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We have some really smart people at some of our companies. The trouble is, there's more than one kind of smart; when everyone settles on the idea that their kind of smart is the only kind, bad things can happen.

There is a kind of smart that tends to be really successful in normal worldly terms. This kind of smart is highly verbal, good at communication and interaction. You see loads of these people at prestigious schools, elite institutions, and so on. They are quick on their (verbal) feet and subtle. They know how to shift tone, when to get personal and how much, and when to bring in what kinds of facts and references into a conversation. Get a group of these folks together, and you can just sit back and watch the maneuvering as they attempt to establish hierarchy among themselves.

What happens to this kind of smart people? They tend to climb organizational hierarchies really well, particularly since their elite institutional training gives them a head start. They do the "important, strategic" work; they hire people to do the regular work.

I fully accept this kind of "mainstream elite" as a kind of smart. But it's not the only kind.

One of the kinds of smart that I particularly value is often called "nerdy." An extreme view of the contrast between "talk-y, strategic, people-smart" and nerdy was nicely put today by a nerd's nerd. Here is the start of an interview with Temple Grandin:

'Who do you think made the first stone spear?" asks Temple Grandin. "That wasn't the yakkity yaks sitting around the campfire. It was some Aspberger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads. Without some autistic traits you wouldn't even have a recording device to record this conversation on."

While Ms. Grandin has become famous because she is an autistic who is accomplished, what is remarkable about her is how truly accomplished she is. For example:

Today, half of the cattle in this country pass through the slaughter systems that Ms. Grandin invented. She's a consultant to companies like McDonalds and Burger King. Yet--and she might well be the only person with these two associations--she's also been honored as a "visionary" by PETA for making slaughterhouses more humane.

Temple Grandin has transformed a huge industry, and she clearly lacks "yakkity yak" type smarts. Before Ms. Grandin came along, there were all sorts of "mainstream smart" people involved in meat packing, an industry that employs over half a million people. If you went to the executive conference rooms of this industry that slaughters roughly 10 billion animals a year in the US alone, you would find piles of well-paid, highly accomplished yakkity yaks who would never dream of actually paying attention to "details" like the walls of the corrals, whether they're curved or straight, solid or slatted. And yet it is details like curvature and slope of walls that determine whether or not a slaughter operation is efficient (not to mention humane). Generations of executives in this industry were all one kind of smart -- the kind of smart that impresses other similarly smart people, the kind that is too absorbed with "strategy" and other in-the-clouds kinds of things, the kind whose time is way too valuable to get "lost in the weeds" of details like corral design.

In a technology-fueled enterprise, it is really important to have smart people. But not just one kind of smart.

  • Yakkity yaks are really valuable to have. They can be great leaders, and they can help find the way to make a company with a disruptive innovation real-world successful.
  • Nerds are really valuable to have. They get totally absorbed in the objects (physical or logical) that need transforming, and can make it happen.
When the balance between the kinds of smarts is wrong, bad things happen. If the yakkity yaks get out of control and run the show their way, somehow the software doesn't ever work and the cool stuff never gets delivered. If the nerds are left to their own devices, they might spend too much of their time solving problems without real-world relevance.

When the yakkity yaks and the nerds cooperate, collaborate and work towards a common goal, watch out -- that's a place that's going to invent cool stuff that people actually need and use, become a meaningful business, and be barrels of fun for everyone involved.

A version of this post appeared at www.blackliszt.com.

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