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Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work

Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus

(An excerpt from the Harvard Business Review)

Innovate or Fall behind: is the Competitive Imperative for all businesses

today. Innovation takes place when different ideas, perceptions and ways of
processing and judging information collide. And it often requires
collaboration among players who see the world differently. As a result, the
conflict that takes place constructively among ideas all too often ends up
taking place unproductively among people. Disputes then become personal
and the creative process breaks down.

.00What are the usual problems?

Managers have two types of responses to this situation. On the one hand there
are managers who dislike conflict- or value only their approach. They hire and
reward people of a particular stripe, usually people like themselves. Their
organizations fall victim to what we call as Comfortable Clone syndrome-
every one thinks alike. Such groups will struggle to innovate (why do you

On the other hand managers who value employees with a variety of thinking
styles frequently don’t understand how to manage them. They think that
locking a group of diverse individuals in the same room will result in a
creative solution to a problem. The main problem is that people with different
styles often don’t understand each other and often this fuels personal
disagreements. The “detail guy” dismisses the “vision thing”; the “concept
man” deplores the “analyst” and so on.

What we call cognitive differences are varying approaches to perceiving and

assimilating data, making decisions, solving problems and relating to other
people. The most widely recognized cognitive distinction is between the left
brained ways and the right brained ways of thinking. An analytical, logical
and sequential approach to problem solving (left brained thinking) clearly
differs from an intuitive, values – based, and non-linear one (right brained
ways of thinking).

What should a manager do to promote innovation?

The manager successful at fostering innovation figures out how to get

different approaches to grate against one another in a productive process the
authors call as CREATIVE ABRASION. Managers make creative abrasion
work for them. Those managers understand that different people have
different thinking styles- analytical, intuitive, conceptual, experimental, social,
and logical or values driven. Cognitively diverse people must respect other
thinking styles. All managers who want to encourage innovation need to
examine what they do to promote or inhibit creative abrasion. The manager
sets the ground rules for working together to discipline the creative process.
Thus, in order to create new ideas or products, managers actively manage the
process of bringing together a variety of people who think and act in
potentially conflicting ways. Managing the process of creative abrasion
means making sure that everyone in the group is talking.

Understand yourself as Manager- identify your own style. If you want an

innovative organization, you need to hire, work with and promote people who
make you uncomfortable. The biggest barrier to recognizing the contributions
of people who are unlike you is your own ego.

Forget the Golden Rule – Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated.
What does this mean, particularly in terms of communications? In a
cognitively diverse environment, a message is not necessarily a message
received. Some people respond well to facts, figures, others prefer graphs,
while some may like anecdotes.

Create whole brained teams- Companies with strong “cultures” can be

creative but with in predictable boundaries – say clever marketing or
imaginative engineering. But when innovation is required, the organization
has to learn to adopt a variety of approaches to problem solving- using not
only the left or the right side of the brain but in fact the whole brain. The list
of whole – brained teams that continue to innovate successfully is long ( ex.
Xerox, Nissan Design etc).

An all too common error !!

John was a rising star in a large diversified instrument company. Appointed

as a manger in a new product development company, John had to bring in
radically innovative idea for product and services in three to six years. Given a
free hand in hiring, John lured three of the brightest MBAs. They immediately
went to work conducting industry analyses, applying their skills in financial
analysis etc. To complete the team, John appointed a few more people with
strong quantitative skills (like engineers). He continued to populate his team
with left brained wizards. After 18 months, the team had rejected all the
proposed new projects in the pipeline on the basis of well argued and
impressively documented financial and technical risk analysis. But the team
itself had not come up with a single new idea. Soon the group was disbanded!

What, in your opinion was the basic problem with John’s selection? How
would you have handled this situation?