The importance of fluid intelligence

Written by
Nigel Malone

This story is part of a series of  articles on “Seven Pathways to Strategic Thinking” written by Nigel Malone, Strategy Director at Archetype. If you would like to receive a notification when the next article is published, register here.

Technically, I was a mistake. The unexpected, latecomer son of a Senior Lecturer in Engineering and much younger brother to two geeks following in their father’s footsteps. When other kids were kicking balls against the wall, I was helping my brothers with science and engineering projects in Dad’s workshop. When other kids were being put to bed, our family would be watching Super 8 films of man landing on the moon on a big projector screen in the backyard.

I remember a few close calls from those days in Dad’s workshop. Almost hacksawing my brother’s finger off. Unsuccessfully testing fireworks made from fertiliser. Underestimating the lift of our homemade hovercraft and nearly taking out my other brother’s eye. From a very early age I was instilled with the notion that anything was possible. All that you needed was a plan, and a preparedness to fail any number of times along the way.

For some, failure represents a dead-end street. For my brothers and I, it was an opportunity to think creatively, to see who could figure out a smarter alternative first, or at the very least an acceptable workaround, that would allow us to keep moving forward with our project. It was only many years later, when I took on an educational psychologist as client, that I realised I had been training my brain to be a strategist from a very early age.

As it turns out there’s two types of intelligence. The first is crystallised intelligence, like the stuff we’ve been taught to remember at school… important dates in history, math formulas, the names of Prime Ministers, and so on. Then there’s fluid intelligence, the ability to solve problems creatively, based purely on the information available.

‘Strategy’ as I’ve always seen it, is simply ‘a plan to win’. The two operative words being ‘win’ and ‘plan’. By ‘win’, I mean you must have a clear picture of your goal. By ‘plan’ I mean the roadmap to get there. The plan begins with gaining crystallised intelligence, the research and discovery required to gain an intimate knowledge of the landscape in which you are operating.

But as the infamous boxer Mike Tyson said, ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. This is where fluid intelligence comes in especially handy. The ability to think creatively, let go of everything you know, and adapt. The best strategists think like this from the outset.

Many agencies have ‘their own’ strategic frameworks that they put all their clients through. They see it as their IP and why clients come to them. The reality is often quite different. It can often, not always, become a cookie-cutter approach where old Powerpoint presentations and ideas get recycled over and over again. Think like a herd. End up as steak.

I favour the toolbox approach to strategy. No client is the same. No single way to solve a problem. Absorb as many models as possible. Generals, sportspeople, scientists, musicians, artists all have something to teach us about strategy. Become the ultimate hybrid, the Swiss Army knife of strategy. Because becoming be a strategist is less about learning frameworks and following process and much more about opening up the right pathways in the brain.

At the end of the day the best clients are not paying you for your agency’s IP, or your Powerpoint skills. They are paying you for your fluid intelligence. Your ability to think creatively, within a strategic framework, not simply falling back on it.

Written by
Nigel Malone