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Just 3% smarter isn’t enough
by Robert Hillard

There is a curious phenomenon in IQ tests.  Every test is designed to have an average score across the population of 100 but for any given test the average result rises by 3% every decade.  This is called the Flynn effect after James Flynn who was central to the observation and documentation of the pattern.

I wonder whether there is an argument that this also relates to society’s knowledge and potentially enterprise capability.  This is a controversial position and many would point out that other causes have been put forward for the Flynn effect although none have been proven.

My argument is that it seems to take a period of time for any idea, no matter how well proven, to get absorbed by a population in an organisation.  As much as IQ tests try to find different ways to test intelligence that is independent of knowledge and experience, they require some degree of common understanding.

In the early 20th century, general relativity was a concept that was so far beyond the understanding of the broad scientific community that it is said that when Sir Arthur Eddington was asked whether it was true that only three people in the world understood the theory he replied “Who’s the third?”.

Over many decades, the concept of relativity has become part of mainstream knowledge and is intuitively understood by the majority of the population who have received at least some higher education in physics.  What changed?  When Eddington made his comment, the idea of relativity had been in existence for some years and the details have barely changed since.  Even though the information had been in existence for a long time, its explanation has improved over many decades through retelling and hence is much more readily adopted.

My question then is whether big ideas get absorbed over a period of years and change the general background knowledge of a population almost by osmosis.  The Flynn effect could, therefore, reflect the rate at which these concepts get picked up.  Perhaps the general capability of an organisation, and society more broadly, is enhanced by new ideas at a rate of roughly 3% per decade.

I have previously argued that it is very hard to make a leap in enterprise capability unless something is substantially changed.  If, however, an organisation identifies the big ideas that are central to their business strategy then they can actively manage the learning of the broader population.  The Flynn effect tells us to not underestimate how hard it is for new ideas to become part of the natural operating knowledge of a group of people.  Recognising this, repetition and the retelling of explanatory stories over months rather than years provide an opportunity to change the game.

To the leaders amongst us, the big idea may be as obvious as relativity was to Eddington – but the question is whether there are just three people in the organisation who get it or whether we are working to lift the general capability faster than Flynn’s 3% per decade.

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