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Do You Have Practical Intelligence?

Klaus M. Blache | November 25, 2023

If you want people who can solve problems and move your company forward, make sure you have strong practical intelligence on your team.

By Dr. Klaus M. Blache, Univ. of Tennessee Reliability and Maintainability Center (RMC)

I’ve often stated in training that the person in the room who can listen to all of the smart people discussing an initiative, trying to solve a problem, or deciding on a direction, and take that collective input and sketch out/elaborate on a path to obtain the needed results is the most valuable person in the room. Not many people can do that or are willing to take the risk to speak up. It requires high practical intelligence, some analytical intelligence, being able to understand and depict the bigger picture, and willingness to discuss a proposed solution.

“Practical intelligence has been referred to as ‘street smarts’ or ‘common sense’ and is typically contrasted with ‘book smarts’ or general academic intelligence. The concept emerged from a recognition that success with solving abstract, academic problems did not necessarily translate to success with solving real-world, practical problems, and vice versa (The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence, Ch. 30).”

“Practical intelligence is the ability to use one’s intelligence in everyday life and apply common-sense reasoning to complex, practical situations. This form of intelligence can be useful in a variety of situations and developing it can make it easier to switch careers, gain new skills, learn new things, and communicate more effectively with others.

Practical intelligence is the ability to learn or develop one’s skills. It comprises the skills that are necessary to develop relevant skills. It differs from academic intelligence, which consists of the intellectual skills that are necessary to excel in an academic setting. Individuals who are academically intelligent often excel at recalling theories and making academic judgments, while individuals who have high practical intelligence tend to excel at solving real-world, practical problems (Practical Intelligence: Definition and How To Develop It,”

As an example, I’ve had two types of PhDs work for me. Both were excellent at academic/analytical problem solving. But, when asked to explain what that all meant (without using math, formulas, and theories), one struggled. The other immediately had application ideas and first steps to get it done. Similarly, in your job, you’ve probably observed people who were creative, visionary, could overcome difficult unexpected obstacles, and could lead a team to implement a major project or modern production facility. Then there are others who are very book smart, analytical, good at theories, and calculating answers, but not as interested/capable of quickly resolving roadblocks or complex situations. You need to decide which person you are and what kind of people should work around you to get actionable results. The good news is that practical intelligence can be learned with ongoing life/work experiences.

Will Rogers said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” I will add that good judgement is only achieved if you learn from your past mistakes. Practical intelligence makes it easier to adapt to your environment and quickly get to effective solutions. EP

Based in Knoxville, Dr. Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at



Klaus M. Blache

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