For years, managers allowed a pop-psychology chestnut—the idea that some people favored their right brain, the domain of creativity, and others favored the analytical and rational left side—to put people in career boxes.
Businesses enthusiastically accepted the idea because it offered a scientific explanation of why some people seem better at analysis and others at creating things.
Recent research into how the brain works has found that categorizing people as right- or left-brained is bunk, specifically when it comes to identifying individual ability to create. Starting in 1998, scientists Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel published “Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory” in Neuron, which suggested that all complex cognitive functions require both regions of the brain to work in an integrated fashion.
Everyone uses both sides of their brains to process information. While the right side of the brain remembers the gist of an experience or the big picture, the left side of the brain recalls the details. Complex cognitive functions require the brain regions to work in integrated fashion, shifting between divergent and convergent thinking to combine new information with old and even forgotten knowledge. People may feel more comfortable looking at concepts over minutiae, and vice versa, but the more easily you shift between both sides, the more complex a creative a thinker you can be.
The results of a 2008 study by Robert Epstein, PhD, a psychology researcher, founder, and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, and senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology demonstrated that by developing four core areas—capturing new ideas, engaging in challenging tasks, broadening knowledge, and interacting with stimulating people and places—people can enhance their brain’s ability to innovate. Seventy-four city employees in Orange County, California, participated in creativity training consisting of exercises that focused on these four proficiencies. Eight months after the training, the employees increased their rate of new idea generation by 55%, brought in more than $600,000 in new revenue, and saved about $3.5 million through innovative cost reductions.
So while some people seem to be less adept than others at firing up both burners, making them appear more left-brained than right-brained, most brain scientists agree—and this is what’s exciting—that the ability to shift rapidly between divergent and convergent thinking, which is the key to innovation, can be sharpened and improved.
Allow your team to develop four core areas of intellectual stimulation to make them more inventive and better problem solvers.
Capture New Ideas.
Engage in challenging tasks.
Give your team a chance to try things that stretch their perceived limits and that are completely new to them. I’m not talking about the hackneyed “trust fall”—a routine activity at management retreats. This is about seriously stimulating activities like learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument (or at least learning to keep time). Regularly provide people with an opportunity to ask for and complete difficult jobs—for example, have so-called “creative” work on a data analysis project and let your “analyst” help the art department come up with a new design package.
Innovation can come from anywhere—especially from parallel industries, and even history. Your continuing education programs should encompass as many different kinds of learning as possible. Don’t limit yourself to conventional industry-specific course work. A green energy startup might send its people to a course in aeronautical design or a class on the history of mechanization. Or do knowledge exchanges. Retailers might find it valuable to have their people learn about how nonprofit companies write grants and pitch projects, while a charity might find merchandising techniques insightful.
Interact with stimulating people and places.
Make sure you and your people get out from behind desks and experience the world. Allowing for staff members to set up shop in the local Internet café can become a laboratory of observation and fresh thinking. Sponsoring mixers with other firms in your area (whether they are related to your business or not) is a great way for people to exchange ideas and talk about what they do with those who come with different points of view. Insist that employees take their allotted vacation time—not only because we all need R&R, but because travel and time off allows us to come into contact with new environments that come back with us to the office, often in exciting ways.
[Thinking Pattern: Topform via Shutterstock]