Does the SAT kill innovation?

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The best time and method for determining a person’s ability to succeed in academic and professional endeavors is:

a.) At birth with genetic testing

b.) At age 16 with a 4-hour test

c.) At age 25 with an analysis of completed college coursework

d.) At retirement with an interview

I’ve taken a number of assessments in my life; some were enlightening, some where challenging, some were just plain useless (to me anyway), and then there were assessments that played an integral role in the options I had for a future. For many college bound students, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the ACT (American College Testing) are two tests that can be the difference between going to an Ivy League school with a scholarship or being wait-listed at a community college. For many institutions of higher learning, the SAT is more heavily weighted as entrance and qualification criteria. And it wasn’t until recently it occurred to me how this one test might be the catalyst to the innovation shortage in the United States.

Now, I have not thought of the SAT in a long time (thankfully) but recently I took an assessment that reminded me of that baneful day when I took it long ago. Similar to the SAT: you cannot use a calculator, and you are penalized for wrong answers (an unanswered question receives a value of 0, a wrong answer receives a value of -1). Now, all of this was taken in the comfort of my home-office so there were no monitors. It is timed and it is being used as a pre-assessment for employment opportunities. And moreover, it is used as a data point for ANY and ALL possible opportunities with this company. Meaning, if a participant does poorly it may prevent him or her from getting promotions, internal transfers, etc. All from one test taken BEFORE you can show anyone what you are actually capable of. Sounds ridiculous, right? To prevent someone from opportunity based on a test they took two or three years ago, despite their stellar performance? Who would design such a system within their organization? Holding talented people back simply based on a test?! Pffft! Surely Sir Richard Branson (a dyslexic and self-reported poor test taker) would protest the business efficacy of such a practice. And yet, the SAT is designed for the same purpose in college. But I digress.

What stood out most were the conditions that a calculator could not be used and the penalty of a wrong answer. First, did I use a calculator? Yes, Absolutely. And if this company asks me if I did, I will tell them so. Second, did I answer questions incorrectly? I am certain I did, as I answered every question and I do not profess myself as confident enough to say they were all right. So why did I ignore these two conditions? Because I think it goes against two foundational principles that employees (and companies) need to embrace if they are to innovate: use all the resources at your disposal, and overcome the fear of making a mistake. I’ll tackle these one at a time.

In college (or any school under graduate level,) when you talk to people and ask about the answers they came up with it’s called “cheating.” When you do it in graduate studies it is called “research.” When you do it in a professional setting, it is called “collaboration.” So the same activity that is demonized in undergraduate and high-school work is exactly the activity companies are spending billions of dollars each year to encourage. It makes sense, rarely is any one person the only smart one in the group. In a group or team setting, assuming you are the only one with a good idea is usually regarded as arrogant, cocky, and at the very least, poor business practice. Using the resources and tools at your disposal to produce a better outcome is just smart practice. I do not use scissors to cut my lawn when I can buy a lawnmower, so why the hell would I do long division if I have a calculator. And the argument that you may not always have a calculator (or lawnmower) does not make sense any more in this era. If I have my phone, I have a calculator; and if I have a neighbor, I could get my hands on a lawnmower (if I don’t have any neighbors why would I care if I cut my grass?) While the understanding of basic math principles is important (as is lawncare in a neighborhood), my job has never relied on my ability to recite multiplication flash cards. Unless what you are testing is someone’s propensity to follow rules despite the ability to achieve a better outcome, restricting the use of resources artificially doesn’t net you much in today’s world.

Sir Ken Robinson said it best during a lecture he gave at a TED Conference (watch it), “if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” Creativity is the linchpin to innovation. Innovation is the intentional shift from the status quo or what “has been.” In order to do that, you have to be creative, be willing to look at things in a new way, come up with an original idea, and in in large part make mistakes along the way. So in this world where creativity, innovation, novelty, change, and progress determine successful companies from failing ones, why would you want employees who blindly follow the status quo? If you create fear or penalize someone for taking a chance, then the likelihood of original or innovative ideas bubbling to the surface is very low. So why create an assessment that sends the message; “if you are not 100% confident that what you are about to do is right, don’t do it?” Let’s say you blindfold someone and tell them you’ve placed three large bear traps at random at the their feet so there is only one safe direction to step. If they step in the wrong direction, their foot would get trapped. Would you be surprised when they don’t move? Fear of being wrong or suffering punishment for taking a chance is a huge inhibitor of progress, it encourages the status quo because it is “safe.” And in today’s business, staying put and avoiding change is rarely safe for long; just ask Borders, Nokia, or Kodak.

And this is what leads me back to my recent assessment and the SAT. The message they send is “don’t use your resources regardless of how it improves your outcome” and “if you are not certain, do nothing.” I’m not sure about you, but that is not the kind of employee I would want – someone who freezes in the face of uncertainty and someone who does not use available resources to get a better outcome. Why then are we teaching the next generation of leaders to do exactly that?

And BTW: I do not think there is a correct answer the multiple choice question at the beginning – success is subjective and potential can only be measured accurately in the realm of physics, not people.


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