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Where Do You Start?

For some time I have been fascinated by the way that different people solve problems. Over the years I have worked with both creative thinkers and with directed, logical thinkers and found that each have strengths and weaknesses.

Those who tend towards more logical, methodical and analytical approaches are often considered “left brain” dominant. They excel in mathematics and statistics and work through problems in a step-by-step manner. The creative and artistic types, however, are known as “right brain” dominant. Their expertise lies in a capacity for expression.

This “lateralization” of the brain was popularized by Nobel Prize winner, Roger W. Sperry. While studying epilepsy, Sperry discovered that cutting the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain could reduce or eliminate seizures.

This division of brain hemispheres has formed the basis of dozens, or hundreds, of books, seminars and training sessions. No doubt, if you have undertaken a personality or strength profiling exercise, you have experienced some form of this thinking.

While this approach is pervasive, it has however, been called into question. Recent research indicates that while aspects of brain function reside in one part of the brain, it is too simplistic to assign left/right brain domination. For example, neuroscientists now know that our capabilities are strongest when both sides of the brain work together. That is, we are more creative and more logical when the left and right hemispheres collaborate.

Creative thinkers have strengths and so do logical thinkers. And like the brain itself, which seems to borrow the best and most appropriate capability from any of its regions, leaders must be able to work with people of all capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.  We need to be able to tap the creativity in our logical thinkers and the logic within our creatives.

But how can this work in practice and why is it important? Well, it is important because, as leaders, we are confronted with the challenge of constantly making decisions and acting upon those decisions. We must be able to size up a problem, take advice and then form a view. And we must decide. Always decide, then act and follow-through. It’s why leadership is so challenging – because it’s so fluid and exacting (combining, perhaps, the left and right brain at the same time).

But the practicalities are different. From my experience, some people do exhibit what are broadly left brain or right brain tendencies. But rather than viewing these as biological – I see them as behavioral. When presented with a challenge which requires a strong, focused and logical sequence of steps, I may delegate it to one colleague over another – one that would fall into the “left brain” category. Similarly, if the challenge was less tangible, I may call on someone completely different – a right brainer. The trick here is not to do with the person, but understanding the problem and the starting point that is available.

You see, knowing the nature of a problem allows us to tackle that problem in the most effective manner. And understanding the nature of a problem means knowing where you are starting.

Chuck McCumber explains this beautifully. He provides this left brain scenario:

… imagine a store owner who believes that he must raise his revenues to increase his profits. He tries multiple methods including advertising, increasing inventory, and product bundling to make every possible sale to his customers. But he forgot that he could also reduce his costs to increase profits, and in doing so missed what could have been much less expensive, less demanding options.

Of course, in this example, it could be argued that this analytical approach was the right one. In fact, I’d say that it was. But, at the same time, I’d also suggest that the problem would be better served not by a single person, but by two people with different skills and capabilities. What if, at a certain point, a creative thinker was added to this equation?

What if, as a leader, you created the conditions which allowed the analytic thinker and the creative thinker to collaborate, bounce off each other, and find a solution that brought out the best in both approaches? Or what if you worked with someone who could draw upon both their creativity and their logic?

For me, it’s not about which solution or approach is right. It’s about the starting point. Tina Seelig talks about this challenge as one of re-framing.

What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”

“What two numbers add up to 10?”

The first question has only one right answer, and the second question has an infinite number of solutions, including negative numbers and fractions. These two problems, which rely on simple addition, differ only in the way they are framed. In fact, all questions are the frame into which the answers fall. And as you can see, by changing the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible solutions.

In many ways, framing the problem – the starting point – is the first decision that the leader must make. But once made, it’s time to get out of the way and let those brains get to work. And the secret, of course, is not in the problem nor even in the framing, but in building the right talent around you. That’s really the place to start.

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2 Comments

  1. I like the post a lot. I’d go even farther when you say “framing the problem – the starting point – is the first decision that the leader must make.” One of my favorite quotes is from Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Framing the problem is not just the first decision, it’s the most important decision.

    PS: Apparently psychologists have evidence that was well balanced left and right and had more connections than average between the two sides.

    • Thanks Tom, having grown up in the Princeton area, Einstein was a frequent reference throughout my childhood. I too love the connection noted in the article you shared about his brain hemispheres being well-connected. I suspect that his thought style was a bit beyond most people, but the principles he espoused and the use of all of his brain is something each and everyone of us could certainly benefit from. A balanced used of the creative and analytic sides is something that not just teams can benefit from, but we as individuals would be far better off finding a way to achieve.

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