February 08, 2007


SMARTS: Are We Hardwired for Success? By Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, Ed.D., and Richard Guare, Ph.D. AMACOM. $21.95.

      Here’s the latest 12-step program designed to solve a life crisis – in this case, a work crisis. Or maybe not so much solve a crisis as prevent one. Business strategist and syndicated columnist Chuck Martin joins forces with two doctors from the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders (CLAD) at Seacoast Mental Health Center in New Hampshire (psychologist Peg Dawson and neuropsychologist Richard Guare, who directs CLAD) to assemble a list of 12 executive skills that anyone can use to determine his or her strengths and weaknesses in workplace situations.

      There is nothing new about a by-the-numbers approach, and there is not much new in some of the skill sets the authors identify. The 12 skills are self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining/achieving goals, flexibility, observation and stress tolerance. The definitions of some skills are self-evident – flexibility, for example, is the ability to revise plans when setbacks occur or new information becomes available. Other definitions are a bit less obvious – planning/prioritization has to do with the ability to develop a way to reach a goal while knowing the key interim steps on the way to that goal.

      What’s really helpful here is Appendix B, a 15-page self-test that lets you determine where your strengths and weaknesses are and – equally important – lets you find out the strengths and weaknesses of people with whom you work (assuming you can get them to take the test, perhaps by persuading Human Resources that it should be made mandatory for productivity-improvement purposes). The reason Appendix B matters so much is that only identification of a person’s executive skills can make it possible to place that person in positions where he or she will do well. For example, it is crucial to have a team that includes members who are good at task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization and time management (among other things). Overloading a team with people skilled in one of these areas but not others is a recipe for failure: having several people who are good at getting things started, but not one who can organize tasks and move them ahead through proper prioritization, guarantees that a project will not succeed.

      Martin, Dawson and Guare deserve credit for showing how their system works in both positive and negative ways. For example, if you are strong in emotion control, that means you stay cool under pressure and are resilient when problems arise; if you are weak in this area, that means you are hypersensitive to criticism and may lose your temper easily. Self-analysis – using that valuable Appendix B – can provide real insights into how you work best and why certain tasks seem consistently to cause you problems.

      The organization-wide applicability of the ideas in SMARTS is less certain than the usefulness of the concepts to individuals. Even if you do manage to use Appendix B throughout a division or in your own department, and even if employees answer all the questions honestly instead of providing the answers that they think will garner them advancement or better assignments, the reality is that hiring is not based on a system like the one in SMARTS, nor are team assignments. It is naïve in the extreme to believe that this particular 12-step program – whatever its theoretical potential – has significant real-world likelihood of changing corporate decision-making for the better.

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