The division in the brain arises from the need to attend in two radically distinct ways to the world at once. The left hemisphere favours narrow focus, linear, analytic approaches and a focus on the parts, not the whole. The right hemisphere is sensitive to the bigger picture, background and periphery. The right hemisphere likes to have a full understanding of the world, as far as possible, while the left hemisphere favours the manipulation or grasping of a prominent part of it.
As Iain McGilchrist tells us in a wonderful 3-part series about his book, “The Matter With Things”, “In the left hemisphere this could be said to be ap–prehending (from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto) the world, and in the right com-prehending (from cum + prehendere, to hold together) the world.
This difference between the hemispheres, Iain shares, can be seen in the human hand. The disposition of the left hemisphere towards exploitation and the right towards exploration is more than an analogy.
After somebody has had a stroke in the frontal lobes of the left hemisphere, one can observe it, at the most factual clinical level. The movements of the right hand are no longer inhibited by the left frontal cortex and it can’t be prevented from making random grasping actions (exploitation). Following loss of inhibitory control through stroke – what is known as a ‘release’ phenomenon – one woman found that her right hand would tend spontaneously to reach out and grasp objects (eg, door knobs) that she passed; in another case the hand would randomly pick up a pencil and start writing.
It is the left hemisphere that controls the right hand, which, for most of us, is the one that grasps things, and when frontal control is lost, the right hand grasps automatically and at random. This is true in left-handers, too – the concept of grasping is separate, therefore, from control of the hand as such.
By contrast, the concern of the right hemisphere is exploration, not grasp (exploitation). In a mirror image of the finding just referred to, exploration of space, even with the right hand in a right-hander, extraordinarily enough specifically elicits activity in the right hemisphere. That it is the exploratory nature of the action which matters is made clear by contrasting grasp and exploration.
Thus, when the frontal disinhibition is in the right hemisphere the left hand tends to explore; when the frontal disinhibition is in the left hemisphere the right hand tends to grasp randomly at things (exploit). Here we see a radical distinction between the hemispheres: in the right hemisphere, exploring the world, on a level with it; versus seizing hold, and taking control, of the world, exploiting, in the left. The right prefrontal cortex is in fact essential to meaningful exploration.
Organisational Exploit (Left) Organisational Explore (Right)
“Companies need to figure out how to execute and innovate in parallel.”— Steve Blank (Innovation Show Episode 194)
Now let’s use this as a lens through which to view the world of business. Think about how any organisation begins. Every organisation in existence first existed only as an idea in someone’s mind. These thoughts were the output of mental exploration (the realm of the right hemisphere). Then the thinker takes an action to bring the thought into reality until they have a repeatable, scalable and sellable product or service. Then the team to exploit this new advantage comes in and so they should to maximise competitive advantage (the domain of the left hemisphere). However, now that the left tastes control, it wishes to maintain its grasp and quashes out any future exploration and all the corporate explorers along with it.
Organisations were designed for steady environments and excel when situations are steady and predictable. Our business environment, our world today, is anything but steady and predictable. Established organisations excel at processes and procedures. They are organised for pristine exploitation (execution), not exploratory search. The past half-century has been a time of certainty, stability, and relative comfort. The relative stability of the post-war period – an anomalous period in world history – has somewhat contributed to our conditioning for stability. Yet in the arc of human history, that period is over. One of the challenges for so many organisations and individuals is that we have been trained to execute on known knowns and have let our exploration muscle atrophy. In fact, we are rewarded and recognised for exploitation and execution much more than we are for exploration. For many budding corporate explorers, the risk outweighs the reward of exploration. It is safer to stay within the confines of the known than explore the majesty of the unknown.
It is understandable that business leaders are struggling with the rapid changes required to compete in this new world order. They got to their positions of leadership through pristine execution, but pristine execution is only part of the future. Explore mode is the polar opposite mode of what established organisations do, it is fraught with risk, trial and error, learning and iteration. It is an entirely alien modus operandi in most organisations and most changemakers are ostracised, misunderstood and often ousted. The organisation rejects them like a failed organ transplant.
Organisations must exploit their existing resources and explore new ones in parallel, and this is where the difficulty arises. People skilled at exploitation, at executing a predictable plan often feel threatened by those who enjoy exploring unfamiliar ground.
Explorers often condemn executors for holding them back, for being slow and overly safe. Equally, executors can become frustrated by explorers, wondering why they are squandering hard-earned resources and playing by different rules. How do we solve this conundrum?
The answer lies with the fruitful tension of opposites, cooperation and collaboration between the organisational hemispheres. Psychologist Carl Jung realised this when he said, “The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.”
For more on this topic, you will enjoy the fantastic 4-part series with Iain McGilchrist on his book, “The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World”.
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