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Deep Smarts - Book Review

1 August 2007
Dr. Moria Levy

Leonard and Snap's book, published by Harvard Business School Press in 2005, is a relatively recent publication. The book delves into a critical issue for organizational managers and individuals: how to foster and convey internal organizational wisdom. It explores the progression from cultivating beginners to experienced individuals, experimenters to the understanding, understanding to experts, and experts to those profoundly insightful. This individual possesses vast knowledge and can adapt the most suitable solutions in the face of the overwhelming sea of information and knowledge relevant to the current situation. This concern is particularly relevant to those engaged in knowledge management.

Starting from the conclusion, the book doesn't present magical solutions but rather illuminates classical methods, providing guidance and emphasis. It carefully selects tools from the familiar organizational toolkit, highlighting those most influential in cultivating Deep Smarts. Despite nothing being entirely new under the sun, the book points out that we may not always use the right tools or employ them in the proper proportions.

This summary serves as an introduction and encouragement to read the complete book. The book emphasizes the ease of learning and nurturing Deep Smarts, advocating that more than a summary is needed to convey the richness of the surrounding story. Understanding the process and the underlying reasons is crucial for internalizing the learning, moving beyond knowing what to understanding why.

The book focuses on individuals possessing Deep Smarts, practical knowledge rather than academic, and those who provide pertinent answers rather than merely accumulating information. It revolves around two crucial axes: the acquisition of Deep Smarts versus its design and development and internal influences versus external influences from others.

Organized around these themes, the book covers these aspects:

  • Experience

  • Expressing Deep Smarts through experience

  • Integration of Deep Smarts

  • Personal beliefs and assumptions

  • Social influences

  • Knowledge Transfer – Coaching

  • Guided experience

  • Summary

The book follows a logical progression, beginning with acquiring and developing an individual's Deep Smarts, moving towards social design and knowledge acquisition with external influences. This structure aligns partially with the Headland Nonke and Teukatzi model regarding knowledge development.

Featuring examples from Internet companies in Silicon Valley during the bubble period, the book is easy to read and offers insights into the research that inspired its creation. The glimpses into the world of these companies during their peak and after the bubble burst add another layer of interest. Happy reading!

Note: Refer to book summaries and articles on Headland's knowledge management model and Nonke and Taukchi's Knowledge-Creating Company (M.L.).


The book's central theme revolves around people learning, creating knowledge, and refining it through their experiences. While this concept may seem obvious, a closer look at organizational practices reveals how little we prioritize managing our organizations with a focus on learning. Furthermore, even when we do acknowledge the importance of learning through experience, there is often insufficient investment in analyzing the principles of experience to nurture and enhance its effectiveness:

  • How does experience contribute to knowledge building, and can it be intentionally designed to foster specific types of knowledge?

  • Identifying the significance of past knowledge for the future poses a challenge. How can we discern what knowledge is genuinely crucial?

  • When is lateral experience preferable, and when is in-depth experience more advantageous?

  • Are there viable substitutes for direct experience?

The spectrum of experience resembles a Gaussian bell curve, featuring everyday, repetitive experiences at the center and less common experiences toward the edges. Beyond a certain threshold, everyday experiences contribute less to our growth. It is the uncommon experiences that sharpen learning by aiding in creating new mental templates. Researchers emphasize understanding through patterns, as the brain associates new cases with existing patterns, enabling swift responses to diverse events. This is how individuals with Deep Smarts can "pull" relevant answers to novel problems they encounter.

During the bubble period, the failure of numerous companies stemmed from a lack of knowledge relevant to the extremes. Managers, accustomed to dealing with abundance, struggled when confronted with the post-explosion collapse. Those who possessed knowledge of how to navigate such extremes were the ones who managed to survive.

Experience plays a defining role in our professional identity, particularly in fields where hands-on experience holds greater significance than theoretical knowledge from books. The general rule of thumb is ten years, during which one transitions from being knowledgeable and expert to possessing Deep Smarts. The book seeks to explore this decade of experience, aiming to condense and possibly eliminate it.

The authors propose practical tips for optimizing learning from experience. First, they recommend stopping at every failure and transforming it into a learning opportunity, thereby refining learning and requiring fewer experiments to establish patterns. Additionally, the book suggests improving absorption during every learning experience. When we approach learning with an open mindset and heightened attention, we absorb more from each experience. The authors cite an example from GE, where, before a significant factory visit to learn from their experience, the team meticulously analyzed and compiled a list of essential knowledge topics. The mere existence of this list heightened attention, triggering increased learning. This approach is easily applicable in experiences we anticipate to be crucial and in parallel processes involving learning from the experiences of others.

Learning through simulation becomes crucial when direct experiences are limited, especially in the less common cases or margins. While it may not match the depth of direct experience, it offers several advantages:

  1. Facilitates the development of sensors that enhance future reception during direct experiences.

  2. Helps in the acquisition of specific skills, sometimes even more effectively than direct experiences.

  3. Remains viable when direct experience is unavailable or not of immediate interest, such as simulating behavior during an airplane emergency.

Despite its benefits, experimentation and simulation have their limitations:

  1. Their value diminishes for individuals lacking basic knowledge in the relevant field, creating a paradoxical situation as knowledge often stems from experience.

  2. Successful experiences, whether actual or simulated, depend on individuals being motivated to learn.

  3. Adequate performance feedback, encompassing both negative and positive aspects, is crucial for effective learning.

  4. Neither actual nor simulated experiences can cover all possible scenarios, leading to a lack of guarantee for success in critical situations.

Some intellectually gifted individuals may downplay the significance of experience, relying on their ability to learn quickly. However, they should recognize that experience shapes who we are and influences how our brains function. Experience holds importance in professional and technological contexts and personal and leadership domains within organizations. In such matters, possessing broad experience becomes even more critical than having in-depth expertise.

Note: Refer to the summary of Edward Sell's book "Learning How to Learn from Experience" (M.L.).

Expressing Deep Smarts through experience

To gain a deeper understanding of Deep Smarts and their development, the authors pause to analyze the distinctions between those with experience and those without, between interns and Deep Smarts owners. Despite the conventional ten-year principle that typically separates individuals with profound understanding from others, it appears that there are shortcuts. A seasoned manager from an oil company tasked with overseeing knowledge management found that the accumulation of experience was faster in this role compared to his previous engineering specialization. As humans, our capacity to learn extends beyond specialized content; we develop the ability to learn itself. This improvement in learning abilities contributes to a reduction in the ten-year rule.

Critical differences between Deep Smarts owners and interns in their conduct and expression of Deep Smarts include:

  1. Deep Smarts owners inherently know more than they don't.

  2. They better identify and navigate obstacles.

  3. They make decisions swiftly.

  4. They recognize contexts, understanding when knowledge is conditional or context-dependent.

  5. They excel in generalization, creating multiple alternatives to a problem.

  6. They subconsciously analyze possible alternatives.

  7. They pay better attention to subtle differences, adapting situations accordingly.

  8. They know what they don't know and recognize when rules of thumb don't apply.

How do Deep Smarts owners achieve this? Several factors contribute:

  • Linking knowledge and experience to existing and new templates, structuring and analyzing encountered knowledge at the pattern level.

  • Adapting situations encountered to patterns, sometimes relying on perceptual templates.

  • Acknowledging the latent dimensions of knowledge, with tacit knowledge becoming more dominant as specialization increases.

While celebrating the existence of Deep Smarts, caution is warranted, and their knowledge should not be unquestionably accepted. Limitations and considerations include:

  • Sometimes, experts may be unaware of the roots of their decisions, leading to misleading explanations.

  • Extensive knowledge may only sometimes provide the necessary templates for analyzing new problems.

  • Overconfidence and too few doubts can lead to misconceptions about the expertise of Deep Smarts owners.

The main differences between Deep Smarts owners and interns revolve around:

  • Speed of decision-making

  • Context awareness

  • Extrapolation capability

  • Differentiating between similar items

  • Awareness of knowledge gaps

  • Pattern recognition capability

  • Tacit knowledge

Organizational managers should bear in mind the following:

  1. The ability to recognize patterns needs nurturing among the younger workforce.

  2. They must exercise caution in decision-making, recognizing their limitations in areas where they lack expertise.

Note: A significant statement emphasizes caution regarding strict adherence to rules of thumb, highlighting their potential to be misleading, especially for laypeople and experienced individuals who might not know when to question them.

Integration of Deep Smarts

Owners must employ Deep Smarts more than merely developing and expressing it; they must employ it judiciously to lead, manage, and make effective and creative decisions. This chapter, along with subsequent ones, explores these applications. Three distinct yet interconnected models illustrate how a Deep Smarts owner combines pieces of knowledge to create integrated Deep Smarts:

  1. Plug and Play:

    a. Involves joining by collecting relevant knowledge items and integrating them into a broader whole.

    b. The knowledge items themselves remain in their original form with minimal changes.

    c. The manager's value lies in integrating complex components and interfaces between them.

    d. An example is a book where the editor compiles a collection of articles, each containing independent knowledge.

  2. Plug, Modify, and Play:

    a. Combines knowledge items from different sources.

    b. Instead of attaching them as-is, various components undergo modification before being added to the whole.

    c. Deep Smarts owners review the environment, select relevant items, and reintegrate them after changes.

    d. Analogous to an editor not only selecting articles but also providing feedback to writers, possibly adding an introduction and connecting paragraphs

  3. Creative Fusion:

    a. Involves bringing together Deep Smarts owners with in-depth knowledge in diverse fields.

    b. Aims to build innovative knowledge, products, or services based on their collective expertise.

    c. Using the previous example, a group of article writers collaboratively creates a new integrated book that is distinct but rooted in the knowledge expressed in the original articles.

The decision to focus on developing in-depth knowledge or combining sophisticated knowledge is a crucial organizational consideration without a one-size-fits-all answer. The organization's ownership, control, and ongoing knowledge development priorities depend on it. However, the authors present three advantages for developing in-depth knowledge:

  1. All the models mentioned rely on initial Deep Smarts as a necessary starting point for further development.

  2. A combination is preferable only when it creates added competitive value through an inclusive method.

  3. Knowledge of the items holds only during the combination process, making it more beneficial to invest in the development and preservation of knowledge.

Understanding Know-Who: The significance of knowing individuals who possess answers is often as crucial as understanding the content itself. Valuable Know-Who can be even more advantageous, being multidisciplinary and capable of offering diverse solutions to various issues. The C6 principle suggests that every person is connected to every other person in the world through a network of up to 6 individuals, implying the vast potential knowledge embedded in first- and second-tier connections far exceeds our imagination.

However, it is essential to remember that effectively utilizing such knowledge demands trust, understanding, and shared values. These elements facilitate the seamless transfer, sharing, and pertinent application of knowledge.

Know-Who can be beneficial in various scenarios:

  1. Resolving issues based on knowledge.

  2. As a source of a second opinion.

  3. As a human filter, assisting in determining who can be trusted or who is part of the "community."

Nurturing Know-Who is vital for bridging knowledge gaps and ensuring accessibility to knowledge resources. These systems can be both formal and informal.

Personal beliefs and assumptions

Philosophers define knowledge as a "true and justified belief." This definition stems from the understanding that various factors determine how knowledge is selective and shaped (or justified). Understanding beliefs is pertinent to developing Deep Smarts in at least two ways:

  1. Parallel Development of Beliefs and Deep Smarts:

    a. Similar processes shape beliefs and Deep Smarts over time, influenced by life experiences and those around us.

    b. Both beliefs and Deep Smarts are often hidden and unquestionable, intertwining in the construction, transmission, and response to knowledge.

  2. Influence of Belief System:

    a. Our belief system guides us in determining what we accept from the environment as truth.

    b. The belief system is categorized into primary, deeply rooted beliefs, less open to change; satellite beliefs, more susceptible to influence; and accidental beliefs, situational.

    c. The centrality of a belief depends on its connection to identity, personal experience, and support from individuals, particularly those we admire.

When examining organizational belief systems, they are grounded in the following:

  • Personal beliefs of participating individuals, especially those in leadership roles.

  • Discipline-specific beliefs within the professional community.

  • Evolution of organizational values and beliefs over time (organizational history).

  • Cultural influences, both from the organization and the country of operation.

Is it Possible to Change Beliefs?

  • Fundamental beliefs are more resistant to change, but various influences can affect all beliefs.

  • Strategies include challenging basic assumptions through questioning, changing frames to offer a different perspective, and introducing new beliefs contradicting the originals.

Changing Organizational Beliefs:

  • Managers attempting to alter employees' beliefs can expose them to conflicting facts or challenge assumptions through questioning.

  • While exposing conflicting facts is effective, it may sometimes be impractical or expensive. In such cases, a combination of methods may be necessary.

In-depth knowledge and deep smarts thrive in a society that is open to questioning and capable of evolving its belief system. Companies fostering Deep Smarts must not solely rely on managers possessing Deep Smarts but encourage a culture where assumptions are identified and challenged for organizational advancement.

Note: Refer to the summary of Edward Sell's book "Learning How to Learn from Experience" (M.L.).

Social influences

Upon waking up and inspecting our reflection in the mirror, the desire often exists to see a person who makes decisions independently based on our belief system. However, in the realm of knowledge, defined as valid and justified faith, the question arises: who justifies? As social beings, we are influenced by our environment, which can either enhance or challenge our beliefs, contributing to their justification and transformation into knowledge. Four levels of influence impact fundamental, central beliefs:

  1. Compliance Excuse:

    a. We yield or surrender to the environment, sometimes when agreeing with it.

    b. Excuses are made when knowledgeable influencers deepen our understanding or hold more organizational power.

    c. Building in-depth knowledge and Deep Smarts based solely on compliance is rare.

  2. Comfort Conformity:

    a. Convenience leads us to give in to the environment, even if everyone else is wrong.

    b. Change stemming from external forces, similar to compliance, makes developing in-depth knowledge challenging.

    c. Studies indicate that learning or creativity driven by external influence lacks the desire to learn.

  3. Herd Psychology:

    a. Arises from uncertainty and insecurity, with decisions made to avoid being left behind or to belong to a group.

    b. Decisions influenced by herd psychology may lack deep knowledge but impact us similarly to faith-based influence.

  4. Tribes:

    a. We seek to belong to a group or "tribe," adapting our belief system to those we admire.

    b. Tribes, such as knowledge communities, facilitate knowledge transfer, aid understanding, and serve as a foundation for in-depth knowledge.

    c. Tribal influences apply to groups we belong to and those we aspire to join.

Role Models:

  • Influences extend beyond belonging to groups, encompassing individuals or groups we aspire to resemble.

  • Role models serve as characters we aspire to be like, but emulating them requires understanding their in-depth knowledge.

  • Considerations include the role of time, personal experience, avoiding symbolism over essence, and the challenge of deciphering tacit knowledge.

As managers, it is crucial to foster various social influences and identify those most beneficial for developing in-depth knowledge. Serving as role models, encouraging knowledge sharing, and fostering a shared sense of mission and tribalism contribute to elevating employees' Deep Smarts.

Note: Numerous studies explore behavior change influenced by others' opinions.

Knowledge Transfer – Coaching

Having explored the development and influence of knowledge, the authors shift focus to a central theme of the book in this chapter and the next—knowledge transfer. Specifically, they delve into how profound knowledge passes from those who possess it to those in need. Those experts facilitating this transfer are termed knowledge coaches. Notably, the emphasis lies on coaching, allowing not only knowledge transfer but also the creation of knowledge by the recipient. Each of us may assume the role of a knowledgeable coach in specific subjects or at certain times. The guiding principle is not necessarily Deep Smarts coaches but facilitators with a superior understanding of the defined subject compared to the recipients.

During the bubble, for instance, GE executives enlisted experts in the Internet and the new economy, emphasizing the importance of knowledge coaches over traditional management hierarchy. The coach is not necessarily required to have Deep Smarts, but they must possess a desire to transmit knowledge and the ability to transfer it effectively. The coach-trainee gap is advantageous when not excessively high:

  1. Avoiding Bottlenecks: The owner of Deep Smarts doesn't become a bottleneck for knowledge seekers.

  2. Ease of Communication: Communication between individuals closer to the knowledge level is more straightforward.

  3. Understanding and Bridging Knowledge Gaps: Understanding and bridging knowledge gaps is more accessible when the coach is closely aligned in knowledge level.

Other vital considerations include personalization between coach and trainee, the significance of conveying in-depth knowledge, the challenge of transferring covert knowledge, and the impact of considering the trainee's knowledge and belief system along with learning styles.

While the coach doesn't circumvent the experiential learning process (the ten-year rule), they play a vital role in helping the trainee identify and analyze knowledge components in their field, significantly reducing the time needed for gaining experience.

Rejecting the principle of blind trust in teaching, the authors introduce several trust-building methods, progressing from basic to advanced:

  1. Guidance is effective when the trainee has some experience or is entirely inexperienced, using guidance as a preliminary tool.

  2. Rules of Thumb: Coaches pass on rules guiding the trainee in dealing with situations (e.g., focusing on activities).

  3. Narratives: Sharing stories that convey valuable lessons.

  4. Socratic Questions: This is an active process in which the coach engages the trainee with guiding questions, explains the problem's complexity, and directs the trainee toward solutions.

  5. Guided Experience: Detailed in the subsequent chapter.

Managers must recognize that coaches need training, as more than knowledge is required.

Note: Refer to summaries of books and articles on learning styles in Kolb's book "Experience as a Source of Learning and Development" (M.L.).

Guided experience

The most accurate and profound method for transferring knowledge is through guided experience. As profound knowledge isn't inherently transferable but crucial for internalizing the right concepts and restructuring based on acquired knowledge, experimentation becomes necessary. Facilitation during the experience significantly streamlines and enhances the process. In guided experience, the focus is on doing, complemented by feedback from the coach. Four methods of guided experimentation include:

  1. Guided Practice: In this method, there is no directed experiment; instead, the trainee practices and the coach critiques the process, thoroughly examining and providing feedback.

  2. Guided Observation involves observing the coach's performance, followed by discussing the observed actions with the coach. This method parallels how toddlers learn basic activities by watching others.

  3. Guided Problem Solving: This method involves the coach guiding the trainee through problem-solving exercises.

  4. Guided Experimentation: If appropriately constructed, this method, representing crucial knowledge for transfer, generates a wealth of experience relatively quickly. The concept of prototypes in projects aligns with this method, acknowledging that an actual experiment is worth a thousand pictures if a picture is worth a thousand words.

Establishing a meaningful feedback process is paramount in all four methods. Recognizing and acknowledging positive aspects is equally important to encourage continued learning and highlight successful practices that should be repeated in the future.

Organizational managers should identify learning opportunities where guided experience can be integrated while balancing current performance and future learning and development. Guided experience proves highly effective for learning while minimally impacting current performance. However, managers must actively create a guided experimentation process, as it doesn't occur spontaneously, at least not significantly.


How do you condense insights from such a book? This work provides essential ideas for cultivating profound knowledge, influencing its trajectory, and effectively disseminating it within an organization. Key takeaways include:

  1. Strategic Knowledge Investment: Not every domain merits in-depth knowledge development for creating a competitive edge. Organizations must carefully evaluate and choose areas to invest in to cultivate the expertise outlined in the book.

  2. Time as a Factor: Learning and developing in-depth knowledge demand time. While the methods discussed can expedite the process, they don't eradicate the temporal investment required.

  3. Human Element's Crucial Role: Technology can aid but is not a standalone solution. Integrating experts with deep knowledge into the process is critical for success. Developing in-depth knowledge within an employee relies on human interaction with knowledgeable mentors.

  4. Training's Critical Role: Successful training plays a pivotal role in the effective development of in-depth knowledge.

  5. Simultaneous Truth Learning and Experience Projects: It is valuable and recommended that truth learning and experiential projects be combined concurrently.

On a personal level, whether as an employee or a manager, enhancing in-depth knowledge involves several strategies:

  • Self-awareness: Recognize both existing and missing knowledge.

  • Enhanced Sensory Perception: Develop receptive sensors, outlining critical points before embarking on significant planned processes.

  • Diversity in Learning: In certain professions, embrace diversity to specialize. Complementary lateral learning should be considered.

  • Network Building: Create a network of knowledge experts, valuing relationships and never burning bridges.

  • Independence Amid Influence: Understand personal independence while acknowledging societal influence.

  • Belief System Examination: Scrutinize and avoid taking the belief system for granted.

  • Strategic Coaching: Choose coaches wisely whenever possible.

  • Adaptive Professionalism: Align the chosen profession with individual abilities and aspirations.

Knowledge is a blend of formal education, real-world experience, training processes, and the belief system developed over time. Developing in-depth knowledge involves various methods mentioned earlier, emphasizing that knowledge is not static; it evolves through personal experience and is within our power to refine it. The more conscious our learning, the more profound our intelligence development. The sky, it seems, is the limit.

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