Clever people are those who are able to create disproportionate value for organisations.1 What I have found is that organisations tend to focus on employing intelligent individuals for their perceived value, often neglecting to take full account of their limitations.  They underestimate the importance of creating an environment that allows these gifted people to realise their potential.  As a result, they ignore, at their risk, the enormity of what could be lost.  Let us consider the paradox of clever people in order to understand how to create an environment that facilitates them generating the best value they can for organisations.


What do we mean by Clever?

Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

As Einstein understood, creativity is a form of cleverness – an outlet for individuals to express themselves in a fun way.  And when it comes to clever people in organisations, what we mean has little to do with the standard measures of intelligence, such as IQ and academic qualifications.  In the workplace, clever people refers to those who:

  • Are quick to understand, learn and apply ideas
  • Have a particular talent or skill that is non replicable
  • Work with originality

Clever people in the workplace are those who generate unique concepts and become the key contributors to the next big breakthrough.  They are essentially the ones with the potential to generate disproportionate value for organisations. For example, they may be the games-developer who produces the code for the latest addictive viral app, the manager who spots unseen consumer trends and generates new market strategies, or the next pharmaceutical researcher who formulates a new drug.  Google calls them their ‘smart creatives’.  However, a better reflection of these individuals is probably the ‘troublesome genius’.

I say this because as Matt Ridley rightly points out in his popular TED conference talk ‘When Ideas Have Sex’ 2 the ability to make significant progress in innovation is, in the modern world, beyond the capacity of a single human mind.  Rather it takes place through the meeting and mating of new ideas.  He points out that no single person actually knows how to create anything in its entirety – not the CEO who just knows how to run the company, nor the person on the assembly line who relies on others to convert natural resources into materials before they can assemble them together.  Well, clever people are no exception to the concept of mating ideas.  No matter how talented they are, clever people need organisations, their resources and other people to deliver on their innovations.  However, the very traits that come with their brilliance can also make them the most challenging and troublesome people to lead and manage.


Clever people are those with the potential to generate a disproportionate value for organisations.”


Dark Side of Cleverness



In my experience, many clever people are independent and do not want to be led.  They do not want to be influenced nor do they care for hierarchy.  They tend to challenge and question assumptions and beliefs.  They are not unlike the disruptive talent we refer to in one of our previous journals, who are talented individuals with the disruptive nature that sees them going against long standing norms and acting differently in pursuit of innovation.  Perhaps you could even argue they are one and the same and my opinion is that they can be.  For me, the difference is that the value of disruptive talent comes directly from their challenge of existing norms and doing things differently.  Organisations may employ or utilise such individuals where the pot needs stirring and change is required.  In contrast, for clever people, the value for organisations comes from their ingenious ideas of creativity and irreplaceable abilities that lead to innovations.  The disruptive challenging nature of these individuals is often merely a by-product of their intellectual pursuit that leads them to have little care for norms.

Managing these clever, freewheeling individuals can be difficult.  When working with them, organisations need flexibility in their management approach.  They must be able to provide a higher degree of autonomy that removes constraints and allows the freedom that is necessary to spur creative thinking.  Simply delegating or maintaining a ‘just do but don’t care how’ mentality will not cut it.  The key lies in making it clear to such individuals what needs to be accomplished, but giving them the leeway to decide how to go about it.

In addition to creating an environment that encourages creative freedom, a second vital element of helping clever individuals reach their potential, is providing them with intellectual stimulation.  Offering coaching can achieve this, since the relationship that develops within that setting plays well to intelligent people’s natural inclination to challenge and be challenged.  It acts as a peer-peer relationship, outside of the organisational hierarchy, in which the participant is viewed as the expert in how best to achieve their goals.  This means that the coach assumes that the coachee already has the ability within them to realise their goals, but will benefit from being asked the right questions to get them to see beyond their habitual way of thinking.  Coaches also help coachees reach their goals by pushing them to rethink which people and resources would help them best, helping them consider new ways of securing these to assist them.  This also makes coaching ideal for bringing about the meeting and mating of ideas.

With our support, an international FTSE 50 company that we worked with has taken this leap to provide their clever individuals with the freedom to concentrate on game-changing projects.  The aim is to help them release their creativity, making it easier for them to deliver commercial opportunities.  Through assessment, individuals were selected and taken out of their everyday roles, to allow them to focus on new ventures for 18 months.  The teams were put together by assessing both the working styles and personality profiles of all participants, while making sure that each group had a good spread of complementary capabilities that would mitigate the risks any one individual might pose. By providing individual support through coaching, we were then able to challenge individuals to focus on the collective goal, helping them seek the resources they needed from others, while supporting them to manage their impact on those around them.  In addition to work we did on a one to one basis, we also focused on team development activities to ensure that the dynamics of these groups were such that those amongst them who were freewheelers would not derail the effectiveness of the project. To date, this approach has seen the innovative projects show a lot of success.



Power Shifters
Clever people know their worth and understand the value of the knowledge they possess. Their power and ability to place pressure on others stems from this. They can cleverly navigate their way through an organisation to achieve their own goals and ensure that resources are allocated to projects that serve these.  Such people are not necessarily leaders or in senior positions, but can be found anywhere within organisations, even at lower levels. Hence frustration can arise from how little power managers feel they have in actually managing such individuals.

Providing clever people with a wide array of resources and the space to explore is motivating and can help prevent them from exerting their power to get their own way.  Clever people are not interested in politics for its own sake, or moving up the hierarchy, they merely want to get what they need to fuel their interests.  Despite their drive to fulfil their own goals, rather than those of the organisation, it is their explorative play that leads to the best innovations.  Providing this motivational playground recognises their enjoyment of working things out for themselves and having the space to toy with their own thoughts and ideas.  Google does this well, for example, by providing employees with the leeway to experiment on their own passion projects within 20% of their working time.  It is one of its most famous and imitated perks similarly adopted by the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn.  These companies believe in this idea that clever employees are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker.


Easily Disengaged
Clever people also get bored easily and are difficult to keep engaged.  They won’t hang around for what they perceive as time wasting activities when they feel they could be cracking on with more interesting and important problems.  They have less loyalty for organisations than some others and would happily flutter to where the excitement is.

Companies outside the technology sector are now catching on to the importance of this concept of providing a ‘playground of resources’ to help retain their clever people and create an environment that makes it possible to profit from their potential value. In October, Deloitte, for example, launched their innovation investments scheme, which provides funding and expertise in areas such as technology and marketing to allow their employees to pursue their own business ideas as CEOs still employed by Deloitte.  The scheme was launched to retain the clever people and generate the innovative future solutions for clients in light of the increasing clever Generation Y employees looking to leave the company to do something different and exciting.  While it is too early to say whether this tactic has been entirely successful, employees have jumped at the opportunity and two businesses are already set to launch next year.  Following in Deloitte’s footsteps, Travelex, in November is now also providing innovation funding to employees.


These clever people with the potential to bring great value also bring their dark sides in teamwork, making them difficult to lead and manage.”


Making Connections

For the next big breakthrough though, it is not sufficient just to have cleverness.  Clever people can’t do all things cleverly, but will focus on the things that excel in.  As we pointed out, clever people need organisations, their resources and other people to deliver on their innovations – they need to work with others for their ideas to meet and mate and for their cleverness to generate value.

It is therefore important that organisations create as many interactive opportunities as possible to maximise the exchange and flow of ideas.  Going back to Google and their smart creatives, they have figured out ways to do just this, making good use of their physical environment.  Behind the many perks such as free lunches and entertainment is the idea that innovation doesn’t simply come from fortuitous meetings by the water cooler but through everyday conversations at any moment.  This could be over shared meals, games of foosball or in continual energised conversations at the desk that would lead individuals to need recuperation time in the relaxation pods.  In our work with Peer 1, we have also seen the benefits of creating the type of physical environment that encourages their people to have informal discussions with, for example, their office swings that give a space for people to have the type of relaxed conversations that spark ideas.  Maximising the number of touch points where individuals can have exchanges is crucial.


Providing Recognition

Clever people also expect to be rewarded for their irreplaceable skill and talent, but in order for recognition to keep them engaged, their managers need to tailor their approach to the individual drivers of their people.  A smart individual might, for example, be highly imaginative, producing great ideas and developing concepts, but at the same time be less team orientated.  When such a person is part of a team that performs well, consistently praising them for the teams’ performance will not resonate.  Instead, they are more likely to respond well to being praised for their own unique contribution.  In order to assess an individual’s motivational drivers, OE Cam has often used psychometric tests within developmental settings, such as  the WAVE profile that has proved popular with our clients.  This process allows organisations to understand their clever people better, helping managers customise the recognition they give to better maintain their engagement of clever individuals.

However, as clever people rack up successes and get used to feeling valued and perceived by others as talented, the risk is that they can begin to become arrogant, developing the type of excessive self-confidence that does not work well within teams.

It can mean clever people:

  • tend to believe passionately that they are right thus may  not have the sense nor the desire to ask for opinions or help
  • can oppress others by cutting others off for their ideas and setting a culture where individuals keep quiet.  This can be destructive to morale and relationships
  • can even cause others to become passive aggressive by causing them to secretly take pleasure in passively watching as the clever people encounter the setbacks and inevitable obstacles that their arrogant style can create


Creating Clever Teams

Moreover, teams of clever people do not make clever teams.  Indeed clever people working together can be volatile when faced with tensions that arise.  Clever people often don’t think alike and with their tendency to believe they are right, can often come into conflict.

One of Dr Meredith Belbin’s earliest discoveries that influenced his development of the team roles was what he named the ‘Apollo Syndrome’.  He found that Apollo teams formed of ‘clever’ people with sharp analytical minds and high mental ability often performed worse than less ‘clever’ teams.  In particular, he found that there was often destructive debate where individuals tried to persuade other team members to adopt their view, that no one was actually converted by persuasion, they had a flair for spotting flaws in others’ arguments, there was low coherence in decisions, and individuals would act without taking account of others.  Watching an episode of The Apprentice on BBC would highlight exactly this kind of difficult-to-manage team of ‘clever’ people with trails of impressive credentials.  Week after week, the team behaviours are predictably explosive.

So it is paramount that when organisations can connect clever people to the rest of the business, they aid these individuals in working effectively.  Just like it would be in The Apprentice, it is important to help clever people recognise their interdependence – that others can do things they cannot within their own area of expertise.  Only then can they begin to perceive the importance of understanding others’ ways of working and begin to alter their behaviour.

In past interviews with creative professionals, I found the shared key benefits of working with others in innovating were:

  • the freedom to think beyond the constraints of one’s own specialist knowledge
  • the ability to overcome the chaos of individual ideas within a single mind through externalising it with others in conversation

If these benefits could be understood then perhaps clever  people can recognise the importance of working with others. I am inclined to say these benefits must be experienced by clever people to be believed, which brings us back to the importance of creating more interactive opportunities for such experiences and the belief.

As we have discussed, the clever people with the potential to bring great value also bring their dark sides in teamwork, making them difficult to lead and manage. Creating the ideal environment for these troublesome geniuses therefore is no easy feat. For organisations to remain competitive, they need to proactively change the way in which clever people are managed and create an environment of opportunities to ensure their interaction with others to help ideas meet and mate.

They can begin to do so by providing:

  • a higher degree of autonomy
  • a playground of resources and space
  • recognition tailored towards individual drivers
  • a physical environment with many opportunities for interactive encounters.


1.  ‘Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People’ by Roberto Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Review (2009)
2.  ‘When ideas have Sex’ by Matt Ridley (2010) TED Talks