Big Idea 2015: Calling an End to Being the Smartest Guy in the Room


Originally published on LinkedIn Influencers on December 18, 2014

In this series of posts, Influencers and members predict the ideas and trends that will shape 2015. Read all the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #BigIdeas2015 in the body of your post).

I have been thinking a lot about thinking. Why do I have the thoughts that I do, and how do I do my best thinking? Why do I feel so alive while thinking with some people, but completely frustrated when thinking with others?

At the end of the day, we only know for absolute certain what is going on in our own heads. When it comes down to knowing what other people are thinking, the best we can do are educated guesses, and the root of most conflicts is the misunderstandings that happen between what two people are thinking. However, just imagine if we could truly understand our own mind patterns, and possess the language needed to talk about it with others such as our family members, friends, and work colleagues. Imagine having the skill and language needed to understand the mind patterns of others, particularly those with whom we tend to get most easily frustrated. Not only could this serve to dramatically reduce conflict, but it could open the doors to an explosion of productivity, creatively, innovation, and maybe even joy!

While I was delving into this line of thinking, the stars aligned in the universe and they led me to meet Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur (pictured above). One of my best friends has worked with them both at Professional Thinking Partners, a consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and teams recognize, utilize, and develop their collective intellectual assets to achieve better business results, and in their soon-to-be-released book, “Collaborative Intelligence: Four Influential Strategies for Thinking With People Who Think Differently” (2015, Random House), Dawna and Angie outline specific strategies for how to think effectively with people who think differently. As we leave 2014 and get ready to embrace the big ideas that will shape and move us through 2015, I invite you all to think about how you think. Specifically, imagine what could be achieved if we all learn how to think together in a positive and collaborative manner.

Below are some questions I posed to Dawna and Angie regarding the process of thinking together and their answers.

Dawna and Angie, why have you dedicated your lives to helping people, (individually and collectively) think about their thinking?

DM: My father was my first thinking partner. He was CEO of Hiram Walker. He was brilliant [at] helping people be all they could be. He also had one secret — he could not read. Starting from the age of 7, I read his papers for him and he taught me to read people. I came to recognize that great minds don’t think alike but they can learn to think together.

AM: I grew up in the Middle East in the midst of several different cultures and ethnicities. All around me diversity was creating division. This fueled my passion to understand how differences could actually enrich our capacity to think together rather than diminish it. This drives me to want to share what we have learned with as many people as possible.

Your work is very scientifically based. Can you share a little about the science behind the strategies?

Our company has been doing action-based research with global senior leaders for three decades. We have applied the latest findings in cognitive neuroscience to the very complex challenges they face. Our focus has been on intellectual diversity. [Our company is] dedicated to exploring the hypothesis that each of us has different and unique ways of approaching problems.

Our culture tells us that we should aspire to be “the smartest guy in the room.” Your work is shifting to a new paradigm. Can you describe it?

To put it simply, it’s not how smart you are, but rather how you ARE smart. Being the Smartest Guy in the room assumes you’re more intelligent than everyone else. It also assumes that all intelligence is the same. If instead, we assume that each of us brings unique capacities, then the question becomes how can we maximize our differences so we can think brilliantly together on behalf of what matters to us all?

There is so much talk about collaboration, but how do people actually do it well?

The first step to opening your mind is to change the way you see yourself as a leader. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of Collaborative Leaders:

  • They don’t see themselves as the leading Idea generator. They do create the conditions where creativity in the organization can emerge.
  • They don’t see themselves as the powerful one who has to come up with solutions. They do create the environments for others to think well together to find solutions.
  • They don’t accept “group think” or “tribing.” They do combine diverse perspectives that were seen as being oppositional.
  • They don’t defer to their own mode of thinking as the norm. They do create a culture where relationships and diversity of thinking is encouraged.
  • They don’t hide their blind spots behind armor. They do recognize blind spots as doorways to collaboration.
  • They don’t favor solitary grand standers. They do foster collaboration, as default response to problems. Even when differences make it difficult.

Finally, what sort of specific strategies do you recommend for how to best think with others?

In our new book, there are four specific and influential strategies for thinking with those who think differently:

  1. Mind Patterns — the unique way each person processes and responds to information
  2. Thinking Talents — the specific ways of approaching challenges that energize your brain
  3. Inquiry — the unique style you use to frame questions and prefer having questions posed to you
  4. MindShare — the cognitive shifts required to generate alignment within your team or organization

Thank you for sharing your expertise with us today.

Dawna and Angie’s answers are only a preview of what you will find in their forthcoming book. In the meantime, you can check out some of Dawna’s many other books here.


As it stands, “Collaborative” and “Intelligence” are not new words, but 2015 just may be the year that they take on a powerful new meaning. Right now, the world is facing countless social, political, economic, and environmental problems, all of which are hugely complex and interrelated. The only way to accelerate true change on any of these issues is to recruit ideas and opinions from a wide range of people, but while we may talk a good game in terms of wanting a diversity of perspectives, the truth is we have no real idea how to handle them.

That is why the time has come for collaboration to stop being merely a buzzword, and instead become a thoughtful practice requiring us to think deeply about how we ourselves think, and how we think with others. This is my big idea for 2015, and if it were to happen on a large scale, the possibilities for positive change are endless.

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