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Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

How to keep the perfect employee from committing the perfect mistake.

How can it be that earlier this year four rogue traders cost the National Australia Bank an estimated $360 million in a scandal that ended up claiming the scalps of three senior managers?

How did One.Tel executive directors Jodee Rich and Brad Keeling pull off the seemingly impossible: managing to get Treasurer Peter Costello on side with the unions in calling for them to repay $6.9 million worth of bonuses?

Why couldn't Australian Broadcasting Authority chair Professor David Flint see the harm he was doing to his own and the Prime Minister's cause by writing a series of fan letters to broadcaster Alan Jones that has forever hamstrung his ability to be seen as a fair and impartial regulator?

And how could US President George W Bush and his coterie of group-thinkers end up embroiling the "Coalition of the Willing" in a costly, unnecessary war - against the best advice of his own State Department and spooks - that Marilyn B Young, a New York historian, has famously described as "Vietnam on crack cocaine"?

That smart and savvy business executives and leaders can find themselves in deep poo over programs and policies that "seemed like a good idea at the time" is no surprise to cognitive restructuring consultant Donalee Markus. "Smart people make dumb mistakes because they've been seduced by their own success," she says. Her book, Retrain Your Business Brain written in association with Lindsey Page Markus and Pat Taylor, was published last year by Dearborn Trade Publishing.

"When smart people make dumb mistakes, it usually isn't because of stupidity, ignorance or apathy," Markus says. Rather, "they get so focused on doing things right that they lose sight of the right things to do". Corporate chieftains can learn too late that the world does not always play by their rules, Markus says.

But it does not have to be this way. Markus has made a career of building diagnostic tools and progressively structured puzzles designed to help entrepreneurs, scientists and administrators break through their usual patterns of thinking to achieve higher levels of effectiveness and get the results they really want. While many label the process "cognitive restructuring", Markus herself prefers to describe it as "unveiling potential and enhancing mental agility".

Markus is the founder of the Designs for Strong Minds (DSM) training program, a cognitive restructuring program designed for high-functioning adults, which is outlined in her book. She says DSM has helped individuals and corporations maximize their thinking power for more than 30 years. Her corporate clients have included Los Alamos National Laboratory [A place where some really smart people have recently made some really dumb mistake. See "Lost in Translation", page 74. - ed], McDonald's, Ameritech, Coopers & Lybrand, Britannica, Quaker Oats and United States Federal Court System, and NASA, where she has developed several critical thinking training programs with top NASA scientists.

She was introduced to the power of visual imagery while working with renowned Israeli psychologist Dr Reuben Feuerstein, who applies his theory of structural cognitive modifiability at his Jerusalem clinic, The International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential. Feuerstein designed the Learning Potential Assessment Device (LPAD) to test his theory that people learn best when mediators intentionally and explicitly intervene, and is a champion of the concept of brain plasticity - the notion that our cognitive abilities are not fixed but can be expanded.

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