The misunderstanding of IQ

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2699 days ago

Bloom's Taxonomy

There are many people in my industry who are “smart” but are often unable to actually be effective. I have numerous examples: developers who can’t balance perfection and progress, entrepreneurs who can’t see that their idea is useless, executives who can’t see the inevitable failure of their plan, and people who just can’t figure out how to turn their great idea into something real. I run into such people, in varying degrees, nearly every day.

In fact, I have struggled with this myself. When I first started my career as a developer, I had a hard time balancing the intellectual purity of an idea against the “messy” path to actually bringing that idea to implementation. It’s hard to accept that the perfect idea really isn’t feasible, and instead opt for something less-perfect in order to actually get something done. But I have learned this lesson (repeatedly!), and much of my success in business has come from learning to understand and accept that some progress toward a slightly better place is much better than no progress toward a perfect place. In fact, I’m now more often a proponent of the other side of the coin – I’d much rather just do something (useful) than try to engineer a perfect solution. So long as smart, capable people are involved in the doing, the end product is usually awesome.

So I am very intimately aware that “high IQ” is not the same as “highly effective.” I’ve known it for a long time, but I’ve never been able to clearly understand exactly why that is. Well, Keith Stanovich figured it out for me. He studied this issue, and learned something relatively obvious – that IQ is a measure of intellectual capacity, but capacity is not the same as ability to use it. (Size doesn’t matter, right?) He uses the term “rational thinking” to describe the ability to use intelligence to solve problems, and this article at New Scientist covers the topic very well.

Go read that article. It will hopefully help you understand that IQ is only somewhat related to success, and that rational thinking is more important. And rational thinking can be learned, and improved on, relatively easily. So there’s hope for all of us, to actually learn to be effective!

Having read that article, I am pleased to have sorted out an intellectual conundrum, but I’m also somewhat embarrassed – I’ve been teaching people this idea for years now, and I just didn’t realize it. See, when I teach people what to look for when interviewing, I refer them to Bloom’s Taxonomy, specifically to the six levels of cognitive skills:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation

To be successful in the roles I’m usually hiring for (Analyst, Project Manager, or similar), the person needs to be highly capable in the top three levels – analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. There are good ways to try to evaluate those things in an interview, and I have a very specific set of interview questions and activities that try to draw them out. (This idea has worked very well, by the way – I’ve been very successful at interviewing and hiring, using this approach.)

So it seems to me, now that I’ve thought through the idea of rational thinking, that Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t really about intelligence at all. Instead, it is focused on the skills required to apply intelligence effectively. That is corroborated by the fact that the Taxonomy is often used in education as a way to judge how well a student is learning fundamental skills, and not as a way to judge their intelligence.

So the embarrassing part is that I’ve been using Bloom’s Taxonomy (and teaching it to others!) as a way to evaluate people’s effectiveness, all the while trying to understand why high-IQ people aren’t always effective. If I had just once put the two ideas next to each other, I probably would have figured out the answer for myself. Huh.

Maybe that’s just proof that I still need to work on both, myself ;)

P.S. – I also owe a big debt of gratitude to the late Mrs. Lilly, the teacher who taught me about Bloom’s Taxonomy in elementary school, and who I know was responsible for accelerating my early development in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Thank you, Mrs. Lilly!

The image of Bloom’s Taxonomy was reused (from Wikimedia Commons) under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license

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