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Right- and Left-Brained Thinking

| On 27, Sep 2007

Jack Hipple

You’ve probably heard these expressions before, but have you spent some serious time thinking about what they mean? How they relate to innovation? Your organization? I’m going to oversimplify here given the space limits we have, and there’s obviously more, but this will at least get you thinking. Welcome your comments!

When we say “left-brained” thinking, or say someone is “left-brained,” we ususally mean that they are very logical and structured in their thinking. They are “in the box” with most of their innovation ideas. It doesn’t mean they are not innovative! They want to understand the details and practicality of an idea, not just its concepts. They have a concern for timing, schedules, standards and deadlines. They have a tendency to want to understand the “chain of command” and the approval structure within an organization to turn an idea into a practical business concept. An extreme “left-brainer” would be someone who believes that an organization should never do anything that’s not in the handbook or relate to an existing  business or technology competence. The last manufacturer of vacuum tubes was extremely left brained. A famous cartoon describes such a person showing several Conestoga wagons in a circle with flaming arrows coming from the Indians outside and the leader of the pioneer group saying, “They’re lighting their arrows – can they do that?”

When we say “right-brained thinking,” or say someone is “right-brained,” we usually are describing someone whose ideas are unstructured and not necessarily connected with the status quo. They tend to think “out of the box,” or in extreme cases, not know where the box is. This means that all their innovative ideas may not be practical or not thoroughloy thought out. They are willing to wink at deadlines to achieve a change they think is necessary. They are less concerend about chains of command, agendas, and timing commitments. They may have trouble getting across their ideas to senior management, who is most likely more “left-brained” than they are. An extreme “right brainer” is characterized in a cartoon showing a sheepherder preaching to a herd of sheep, “Wait, wait, you don’t have to be sheep!?

And of course, there are shades in the middle where most people are as in a bell shaped distribution curve. It is worthwhile pointing out that these tendencies, whatever they are, are pretty hard wired. It’s not that someone can’t be like the other for a while, but it’s not easy and may require Valium if attempted for a long period of time. (I know, I’ve tried – not the Valium, but trying to be someone different than I am!)

Are either of these types or tendencies “good” or “bad”? Absoutely not! How would you like to know that your pharmacist or airline pilots were extremely “right-brained”? A prescription? I think I know a better medicine. Flight plan? What’s that? Let’s try something different today! How would you like your emergency response team leader, faced with a new situation, to be totally “left-brained”? An emergency that’s not in the training manual? Let’s wait until we get instructions before we do anything. A major business unit manager may need to be in the middle when contemplating either a major product recall, or possibly a newly issued competitive patent that threatens a major busines. We need both within an organization. Consider a breakthrough new product created by a team of right brainers. How is it to be manufactured? At high efficiency? Shipped? Labeled? Certified? Patent protected? All those detail things necessary in the real world of today’s business. Like the sheep, it’s difficult for a new product to change its basic nature in that it still requires a large number of “left-brained” steps to bring it to market. If you have a large majority of left brainers in your organization, how easy is it going to be for them to think of a new product that’s going to replace yours, using a totally different type of technology? A totally new marketing approach that’s never been tried before?

The point here is that we need, and need to understand, both types of thinking in the normal running of an organization and in its attempts to be more innovative. Do you know the characteristics of your organziation? Your team leaders? Your teams? Are there natural capabilities a match with their assignments? What if theyu aren’t? What are you missing? How are you going to find out? What might be the positives if you knew and could use these cnaracteristics pro-actively in establishing teams and assigning people to them?