CFO/CEO/Corporate Leadership: “We need a step-by-step roadmap of precisely how this (innovation, new business model, new product service) will work!
Corporate Innovator (to themselves): “Ah, F_©_ this! not again!”
And thus spoke corporate leadership and in doing so killed another idea and jettisoned yet another corporate change agent. The above monologue/dialogue is often accompanied by questions such as, “When will it be profitable” or “How will this impact our existing customers?” and comments such as, “That will never work” or “Let’s just let someone else figure it out!” and myriad other variations of these questions.
Corporate changemakers experience this (one-way) conversation regularly, it is a soul-destroying situation to find oneself in. To understand the terrain of corporate innovation a little better, we can find illuminating clues in the functioning of the brain’s hemispheres. In particular how each hemisphere plays a different role in our worlds and how one of these hemispheres dominates the workplace.
Our guest on the Innovation show is Iain McGilchrist, Iain graces us with a 3-part episode on his latest book “The Matter With Things”. Our conversation inspired this week’s Thursday Thought (and many more to come).
The next time you see a pigeon, notice how it attends to the world. It will move its head often looking through one eye at a time. Iain McGilchrist explains why. Take ,for example, an occasion when a bird needs to discern a piece of grain from the grit on which it lies. While maintaining a focus on the corn, the bird also needs to guard against a possible predator less it becomes the food of another animal while trying to feed itself. What does the bird do?
To solve the conundrum, she employs different strategies for either eye. The right eye, (controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain) is for narrow focus and feeding, and the left (controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain) is for awareness of the wider environment. This is one of the reasons the brain is asymmetric, for dual-attention. The left hemisphere favours narrow focus, serial analytic approaches and a focus on the parts, not the whole. The right hemisphere is sensitive to the whole picture, background and periphery. This follows from the right hemisphere’s need to get a full understanding of the world, as far as possible, while the left hemisphere needs to manipulate or grasp a prominent part of it. You can see how this manifests in the workplace, well, at least your right hemisphere can (the right has an appreciation of metaphor and analogy).
Imagine the organisation as a bird. All organisations start off with an idea, a concept from a founder, an entrepreneur, or a catalyst. This original spark, this idea comes from the right hemisphere, it is fuzzy vision and it lacks process; lacks structure and order. However, this idea originates from scanning the big picture and observing the business environment for opportunities. The idea considers forces of business disruption and consumer trends. The idea is often hard to articulate because it comes from the right hemisphere, while the left hemisphere is where the language centres of the brain sit. This is often why it is difficult to articulate an unprecedented idea, the right hemisphere can feel it is valid, but the left hemisphere cannot grasp it. The left hemisphere wants to understand it, so it can pigeonhole it (excuse the pun) and categorise it based on previous experience. Like the bird focussing on a grain amidst grit, this is what the left hemisphere does brilliantly. However, if it cannot grasp the concept, it often rejects it or tries to force it into a previously categorised idea. When this happens in an organisation it spells the death of many great concepts, which have unrealistic timelines and return on investment forced upon them.
While we might agree that the left has a vital role to play in business and in life, to excel at a narrow focus, this mode of thinking can become problematic if it dominates the workplace, which it does. In the past when the competitive advantage was durable, the left defend its existing advantage. However, in today’s turbulent business world, we need more right hemisphere influence.
Organizations really engage in two processes— execution/exploitation and exploration/innovation. Execution/exploitation is the delivery of value today, while exploration/innovation is the creation of value tomorrow. When the organisational left hemisphere dominates, we lose exploration and innovation. Once the left hemisphere has locked onto its target to explore it, the more easily it misses new opportunities and threats.
Execution is about control, focus and driving out variability to achieve efficiency. Exploration/innovation is the opposite. This mode is about freedom, imagination, creativity, and embracing the big picture. Because execution is more about standardization, and innovation is more about deviation, there’s a natural (and fruitful if harnessed) tension between the two, just like the brain’s hemispheres.
So why the picture of the spots?
If you look at the image, it takes only a tiny effort to see the contours of a Dalmatian sniffing the ground. However, here is the point, without the previously stored higher-level concept “dog”, if we were only to use “the parts”, we would see only a meaningless pattern of white and black dots. We would focus on the component parts and miss the big picture. “Seeing the dog requires a functioning right hemisphere. The left hemisphere thinks locally, one dot at a time, and gets – nowhere.” – Iain McGilchrist.
When corporate leaders demand, “a step-by-step roadmap of precisely how this (innovation, new business model, new product service) will work”, they do the same.
THANKS FOR READING
Part 1 of the Matter with Things is available here:
Part 2 will be live later today July 14th 2022, the playlist is available here: