Do You Know About "Deep Smarts"?

March 20, 2022

Do You Know About "Deep Smarts"?

May 29, 2023

I’d never heard of the Harvard-founded concept of "Deep Smarts" until last month, or the book title by the same name.

But, wow, this is a topic (and book) that deserves more attention in the organization world. Here are a few nuggets.

  • When a person sizes up a complex situation and rapidly comes to a decision that proves to be not just good but brilliant, you think, “That was smart.” After you watch him do this a few times, you realize you’re in the presence of something special. It’s not raw brainpower, though that helps. It’s not emotional intelligence, either, though that, too, is often involved. It’s deep smarts.
  • Deep smarts are not philosophical—they’re not “wisdom” in that sense, but they’re as close to wisdom as business gets. You see them in the manager who understands when and how to move into a new international market, in the executive who knows just what kind of talk to give when her organization is in crisis, in the technician who can track a product failure back to an interaction between independently produced elements. These are people whose knowledge would be hard to purchase on the open market. Their insight is based on know-how more than on know-what; it comprises a system view as well as expertise in individual areas.
  • Because deep smarts are experienced-based and often context specific, they can’t be produced overnight or readily imported into an organization. It takes years for an individual to develop them—and no time at all for an organization to lose them when a valued veteran walks out the door. They can be taught, however, with the right techniques.
  • The best way to transfer such expertise to novices—and, on a larger scale, to make individual knowledge institutional—isn’t through PowerPoint slides, a website of best practices, online training, project reports, or lectures. Rather, the sage needs to teach the neophyte individually how to draw wisdom from experience. Companies have to be willing to dedicate time and effort to such extensive training, but the investment more than pays for itself.


Once again, WOW! The subtitle for the 2005 book is “How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom.” But it only has 20 Amazon reviews 17 years later from two esteemed Harvard professors? Curious why the concept never got popularized.

I look forward to reading this book because I’m not sure I’ve seen a book so aligned with my book “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder” although my frame was more personal and this book is more organizational. Maybe we should set up a book club to read “Deep Smarts”?

P.S. Please join us this Tuesday for our free online event with Mark Nepo and Paula Pretlow on The Power of Reflection in Uncertain Times as well as a Q&A segment on our first five MEA Baja workshops of the spring.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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