Profit Minded

Fluid Intelligence: What Peyton Manning Can Teach Us About Startup Success

If you’ve ever watched Peyton Manning play, you’ve noticed it. Hurrying his offense to the line, he scans the field. His mind and mouth are racing, processing and relaying bits of information - the down, field position, his offensive personnel, the defensive formation, whether or not a play worked before, the conditions, crowd noise and the price of hotdogs and beer. All in the 40-60 seconds between snaps.  During the play itself, Manning quickly progresses through various passing options before executing – quickly, decisively and (often) flawlessly – amid a tangle of helmets and 250-pound defensive ends trying to kill him.

Thinking fast.

This season’s stunning statistics have the football world asking: what makes Manning so special? Most NFL quarterbacks have a strong arm, quick feet and top-level athletic talent. And while Manning’s preparation routine is legendary, he’s not the only one studying game film. It’s obvious that he’s smart, but something else must be happening for him to outperform his peers to such an extreme degree. An emerging theory on which traits cause some entrepreneurs to succeed (when most fail) may provide the answer.

Increasingly, psychologists are looking at fluid intelligence as one of the major traits that separate the few winners from the many losers in startup businesses. Fluid intelligence is best described as the brain’s ability to recognize patterns and solve problems in new, fast-paced and dynamic environments. Sound familiar? Like Peyton Manning, startup founders and leaders exist in chaotic contexts, improvising and reacting as much as planning and preparing. If this ability can be measured, can investors and entrepreneurs use it to inform which companies to invest in and employees to hire? That’s exactly what is starting to happen.

Admission to Adeo Ressi’s global network of startup accelerators, Founder Institute, is based on a 1-hour test that looks for fluid intelligence as well as a core set of behavioral characteristics (personality). Ressi believes that this test can predict startup success with 85% accuracy. Likewise, Margey Lowery of Scientific Entrepreneur Evaluations believes that investors who back startup companies can use a similar assessment tool to increase their success rate:

“When unexpected twists and turns occur, can the entrepreneur think quickly on his or her feet?  Measuring fluid intelligence and personality traits, can help investors answer this question.”

In hiring, testing for fluid intelligence is still on the fringe of mainstream practice. However, in a startup, it’s not just the founder who must perform in uncertain environments. Software developers, customer service reps and sales managers must learn and adapt quickly as they introduce new products into (often) completely markets. Measuring for fluid intelligence, in addition to behavioral qualities, may hold the key to finding that “it” employee, putting less emphasis on conventional qualities like previous industry experience. Perhaps proving the point, one of the Broncos’ leading receivers is a former basketball player, Julius Thomas.

In football, it used to be that a play was called in from the sidelines or press box, shared with the offense in the huddle and then executed on the field (as drawn up on a locker room chalkboard during the previous week). Likewise, business success was determined in the boardroom, using long-term strategies, executed in a static, predictable environment. However, in today’s dynamic, fast-paced business environment, those approaches no longer work. Increasingly, companies are succeeding not through careful planning but instead by adapting and executing in a state of constant motion. Having a team full of and led by players with high fluid intelligence might be the key to success in the market and on the gridiron.

Robert Hatta is the Talent Partner at Drive Capital, a VC fund focused on innovative companies throughout the Midwest. At Drive he helps portfolio companies build amazing teams.  Hatta's experience also includes other senior leadership roles within technology startups at all stages of growth (some successful, others... not so much). Before all that, he went to Stanford, where he met a lot of smart people.

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