Sunday, May 4, 2008

Left Brain, Right Brain

Three events last week led to some interesting discussions about "left brain" and "right brain" thinking. Left Brain thinking is logical, detail oriented, facts-based and analytical. Right Brain thinking is more intuitive, sensory, "big picture" oriented and imagination-based. Mathematicians live more on the left and artists more on the right. You get the idea?

Let’s look at the three events.

The final class in Comparative Leadership focused on the case of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. This was the case that brought together all of the elements of the leadership framework developed in the class. We read and watched. A week before the class we gathered one evening to see the documentary, “The Endurance” narrated by Liam Neeson (See ). It was a moving film. How Shakleton and his crew survived almost two years in the harshest conditions and one enormous obstacle after another was staggering.

During the class, the professor had us complete an individual exercise. We each drew a slip of paper from a hat that had one of the scenes from the story on it. We then had to write what we would say to the men as a result, and share it with the class when called on. My question was the following, which two other students also drew:

“You are Shackleton and it's Nov. 21, 1915. You have just watched the Endurance sink below the ice. What will you decide to do next? How will you communicate this to the men?”

The first student talked about the need for goals and planning, and sharing these with the men. This was a good answer. It was also very Left Brain. I volunteered a more Right Brain answer: “I’d hold a funeral,” I said, “for the ship.” "It is important for the men to face the reality, and have some time to grieve.” This was a significant loss. After the service—using the ship’s name—I would say, "and this is how we will honor her name: by enduring!"

This alternative sparked an interesting debate. It was obvious that the students were having difficulty wrapping their minds around this as a reasonable leadership action. Reasonable is the key word.

The second event was an announcement I received from the Academy of American Poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. The academy had designated April 17 as “Poem In Your Pocket Day,” encouraging readers to pick a poem and share it with friends and colleagues during the day. (See ).

Since email is a virtual pocket of sorts, and since good things come in threes, I shared three of my favorite authors’ work—all by poet laureates—in an attachment to an email, which I sent to everyone I knew at Tuck/Dartmouth with a note to “enjoy.” This was a very Right Brain email, which I used for the subject line. I included about 30 names on my distribution list.

Here’s what happened: only one recipient responded, saying they were looking forward to reading the poems during lunch. I presume the rest did not know what to do with this, or chalked it up as another bulk email at worst, or something weird from that Save the Children guy at best.

The third event was a discussion about stories over coffee with some Tuck colleagues. We were brainstorming how storytelling could be a part of business school education. Imagine that? We agreed that the most memorable political and business leaders were very good at telling stories. The rise in personal videos is perhaps related to this. Stories provide a way to communicate that draws the listener in and invites her to become part of the story, to make it her own. Steve Denning and others have written about this. You can find their work in that most Left Brain of publications, the Harvard Business Review.

So what’s my point? We need more Right Brain in our education. It's true that business school cases are a form of story. They are dissected before and during each class. But it is the “soft” aspects—the Right Brain stuff—that is often missed. Analysis is the bastion of a business school education. It’s important; I don’t want to denigrate that—after all, I’ve been accused of dreaming in spreadsheet cells. But analysis does not motivate change; it does not win the hearts and minds of people. And leadership is more often about winning hearts and minds.

Footnote: For a fun test on which side of the brain you are using, see the Herald Sun’s article and Left Brain, Right brain visual test, here,21985,22556281-661,00.html . Are you able to focus and make the figure reverse direction? Try reading a poem and looking again :-)

I’m headed to the NetHope Summit in San Jose, CA on the Cisco Campus this coming week. The theme is the power of collaboration. I’m excited about this event and the rich agenda we have set for ourselves. More on this as the week unfolds.


SEO Mehboob said...

Ed Granger, Thanks for your idea about "left brain" and "right brain" thinking in Business School.

clay said...

Ed, is the test a joke? I mean, does the dancer always move clockwise after a moment?
Enjoy CA and Nethope! :)

Edward G. Happ said...

C.Lay, Thanks for your comment. The test is serious. Re-read the article included on the Herald Sun site. The figure will reverse directions as you focus, and then go back again. Of course, it requires a changing mindset as you watch (and a solid broadband connection) for it to work well :) --Ed

Lyn Britt said...

Ed, interesting thoughts on holding a funeral for the ship. In my research of other sponsorship organizations, a prominent one stated that the best thing they did was to hold a funeral for their legacy system when they went live with another. I have been entertaining this thought since that discussion. Hmmm... - Lyn

Ade McCormack said...

It is true that there appears to be a dearth of right brain (creative) thinking. I think the business challenge is that we appear to be paid to do rather than think. Hitting the keyboard furiously seems to impress most managers more than resting your head on your desk (devising a creative solution to a business problem). Its difficult to express creativity in a spreadsheet so the CFO isn't likely to be that interested in it! The fact that creativity is risky and difficult to plan makes it unattractive to many senior executives.

Its a big issue in the tech sector. IT departments are built on logic with the technologists as carbon-based peripherals. IT has the power to totally disrupt business models and deliver competitive advantage, if only someone in the IT function stopped to think about it.