Return on investment (ROI) is essential in many projects, initiatives, products, and solutions. With the dollars invested, we want to know what we will recover and what our benefit will be over time. Money is a tangible asset, yet an equally important metric is return on intelligence. After all, people use the money to apply their talents to the investment being made. Our return on intelligence plays a critical role in the success of our pursuits.

Return on Intelligence Matters More

Money is the fuel or the enabler of organizations and their works. However, without the right people, money is wasted. Having the right people may be more important than having a well-funded project or initiative. Key questions to consider:

  • How many well-funded products and projects fail because of the wrong people doing the work?
  • How many scarcely-funded products and projects succeed because of the right people doing the work?

Entrepreneurial companies usually have scarce resources and can change the world with a new product or service launch with the right people applying their talents in a meaningful way. On the other side, a study of why startups fail highlight one reason: 23 percent had the wrong team. Money, market, competition, and a few other elements round out the reasons, but having the right people makes a difference.

My argument: Having the right type of smart people matters a great deal.

Getting the Right Return on Intelligence

People are smart in different ways.

  • Street smart
  • Theory smart
  • Results smart
  • People smart

You know how people are smart in different ways, and we also know how some “smart” people just drag everyone down. Getting the right balance is challenging but critical to getting the right return.

A way to look at return on intelligence is through a two by two matrix. What we compare is the smartness and the results of the individuals involved, and we see who we should avoid and who we should engage. Additionally, we see what happens in each quadrant.

ROI - Return on Intelligence



What happens when an egotist enters with only fictional results? Bloat.

Bloat is a lot of puffed up views of oneself but with nothing to show for it. Bloat encompasses:

  • More talk than action
  • More monologues than productive conversations
  • Little implementation but many large, continuous meetings
  • A lot of self-centeredness and very little team, organization, or business progress

Bloat snuffs out creativity and stalls progress. The air is let out of a team when one individual thinks they are the smartest person in the room. Many bloated individuals do not see it, probably due to the size and width of their ego. Also, too many leaders let it happen, because they want to keep certain smart people around.

The result:

  • Stalled product development
  • Disoriented team members
  • Frustrated markets
  • Eventual failure


With the egotist present, some progress still happens. Tangible results unfold. Some may see this is because of the smart individual, but most would say it is despite the smart person. What happens are workarounds. Other team members plot paths around the egotist so the work can be done and a better solution can be designed, tested, and launched.

The results: An exhausted team. To mitigate the egotist, other team members must work double and triple time to gain results. While this is happening, the egotist is usually oblivious and claims responsibility for the success when they had nothing to do with it.

Eventually, turnover takes over. Exhausted team members can only last so long. Organizations do not gain a positive return on intelligence.


Moving to applied smartness, we gain individuals who work with others and realize individuals are stronger by leveraging different ideas and perspectives. Even with a more productive smartness, results can be sporadic, and progress gets stuck.

Just as one person can dominate and distract, a group can get caught in a trap of consensus or groupthink.

  • Brainstorming is the death of progress.
  • Accepting someone’s thought process without challenge sets a dangerous obstacle course.

Two real statements and each deliver a poor return on intelligence.


The optimal alignment is getting applied smarts to work well together to achieve tangible results. When this occurs, it is like a feast in that everyone is fulfilled and the harvest is large and productive. Although this may seem gluttonous, it is not. The only gluttony is being purpose-centered, collaborative-oriented, and progress-driven.

What facilitates a feast in return on intelligence?

  • Keep a focus on the greater mission
  • Understand everyone’s talents and let them shine through
  • Determine how to work together, how to work separately, and how to come together
  • Define the milestones and hold each other accountable while giving each other space to achieve
  • Focus on learning and growth of each individual involved
  • Rid your team of the egotists as quickly as possible

Egotists have fixed mindsets, and they will lower your return on intelligence by large factors. Growth mindsets focus on how to apply their talents and smarts in a learning-oriented way. When growth mindsets put in place the right working relationships, the return on intelligence rises exponentially.

Gain ROI with a Focus on Return on Intelligence

Organizations try to hire smart people. Talent inspires progress, no doubt. Smartness without character, however, burdens a team and progress.

We idolize smart people and then wonder why we pay the price in culture. Smart people can do great things, but they can sustain doing great things when they also are character-smart. Sustaining relates directly to activating others in a character-fulfilling way.

To gain the best return on intelligence, we need to embrace a smart leadership approach and collaborate in a way that brings out the best in all involved. When this happens, our ROI will rise, and our organizations will thrive.