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Views from the Prairie

June 12

Genius is hard to find

(And no, I am not one.)

Nearly every company is advertising for the 95% person, but genius is hard to find and even harder to recognize. Many a large multi-national corporation is paying their top people as if those people are true geniuses, but the results rarely match the pay. So, why is it that companies can't get what they want?

The first problem is that of sheer numbers. True geniuses are less than one percent of the population. There are many more "crack pots", "crazies", and "con men" than true geniuses. Corporate structure has to be set up to deal with those people instead of recognizing genius. Thus, Hewlett Packard put Steve Jobs into the category of "people we really don't want to have working for us" because he matched the characteristics of someone who was just too far out there to be a good employee. (Truthfully, he was a bad "employee", but astoundingly great "company founder.")

The second problem is recognizing genius. People who don't have experience with genius rarely recognize it when they meet with one. The story goes that the first grade girl heard that her neighbor knew a little about math and so, she asked him to help her with her homework. When her mom found out who was tutoring her daughter, she came over to profoundly apologize for disturbing Dr. Einstein. The daughter only knew that here was someone who knew a little more than she did, not that he was a genius. (By the way, Dr. Einstein refused the apology saying that he was not sure who learned more, the daughter or himself.)

The third problem is that people with genius often have other issues that cause them to not fit well with traditional corporate structures. Percy Julian, who was important in the invention of latex paint, synthesized estrogen, and generated numerous other chemicals could not get a job because of his skin color during the time of racial discrimination. Alan Turing who led the team that broke the German encryption code in WWII and set the standard for what computers would be for the next 70 years was prosecuted for his homosexuality. Many a genius simply can not work with other people under corporate rules.

Corporate personnel departments can only handle the 80% people and 80% of the talent needs of a company. They are filled with people who know how to handle forms, standardized descriptions of needs, and can only supply people who pass through that type of filtering.

The final problem is that genius works best in a team. No one person is perfect for all situations. A genius who cannot work with other people can cause more harm to the corporation. A well functioning team can often out perform the self defined genius.

Thus, the company that expects the top person to be the genius to save the company often is badly disappointed. The great coach is better than the outstanding single player.

It is business, don't fall in love

Many of us fall in love with our ideas. We fall in love with a product. We fall in love with a job candidate. We fall in love with a new business structure. We fall in love with a company that we want to invest in. Falling in love is bad business.

When we fall in love, we have the glow that everything will work out ok. Many a teenage song says that love is all we need to succeed. In love, we have not just hope, but the irrational ignoring of all the problems that might be with the idea, the job candidate, the new business venture, or the P/E ratio of a hot IPO. Just like the teenager who is behind the wheel after partying late at night, we face the high risk of a bad crash.

This is not a recommendation to not love something. Without a passion for a new idea, business venture, or job candidate, we are not living in the business life. Cold, rationalistic living loses to someone with a passion. Repeatedly, throughout history, people with a passion have pushed through the rational arguments against their idea and succeeded. The rational side says that far more have pushed with their passion and failed.

We need both the passion, and the rational evaluation of the risks, the capabilities, and the possibilities. We need to check the references of job candidates. We need to have clear guidelines of when to buy and sell as well as fundamental analysis of a stock we want to buy. We need to have outside people with whom we can talk over a business idea and see if it makes sense to them as well.

Even when we love, we need to detach so that our love does not blind us.

Risky World

The Flame virus that has infected many computers in the Middle East is starting to get serious respect from computer scientists. One aspect is that the makers were able to find a way to fake out a Microsoft certificate so that it appeared to be a genuine update for everyone's computers.


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