Right Brain Thinkers / by Elmer Canas

(Original Post July 2011)

So I've been studying the differences in Right-brain thinkers vs Left-brain thinkers, to better understand the people around me, including my own thought process. I've come across several interesting articles that clearly define how the brain functions and that's all jiffy. But then I came across a book by Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. I recall listening to Pink lecture at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta in 2010. He shared the most intriguing thoughts based on engaging our teams, employees into more productive work weeks and more effective creative lives. It was "money!" I've implied some of his concepts to my work week and have seen some of our team members step up and out of their box in such an amazing way. Check out the following paragraphs. It's a quick overview on Daniel Pink's book.

Six Right Brain Aptitudes

So what remains for us as creative, educated humans? What can we bring to the table to generate unique contributions we can be proud of? Pink says: “In the Conceptual Age, we will need to complement our L[eft Brain]-Directed reasoning by mastering six essential R[ight-brain]-Directed aptitudes…Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. These six senses increasingly will guide our lives and shape our world.”

OK. I see you rolling your eyes and grimacing. Yet while your left brain may protest this as airy-fairy sounding stuff, Pink says we need not fear because “back on the savannah, our cave-person ancestors weren’t taking SATs or plugging numbers into spreadsheets. But they were telling stories, demonstrating empathy, and designing innovations. These abilities have always comprised part of what it means to be human. But after a few generations in the Information Age, these muscles have atrophied.”

So the task before us all is to help give birth to this “whole new mind” by encouraging right brain thinking. But what’s in it for project managers and project team members? It’s simple: By engaging your “whole new mind” you will create more innovative project deliverables and distinguish yourself from the routine, plodding left brain teams that are just “getting it done.” And better yet, when you get a reputation for producing great results, you are likely to win the competition for scarce organizational resources like money, people, and time. And, in the long run, having more resources will enable you to create even more of those amazing new products and services that you can be proud of. And isn’t that why you went into your line of work in the first place?

A Project Team Case Study Example

To figure out how to crank up our right brains, we need to dig a little deeper into Pink’s “six essential R-Directed aptitudes:” Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. Then we have to figure out how to apply these to projects and project management. And the best way to do this is by examining a somewhat fanciful little case study scenario.

Let’s say we work for a software company that sells two consumer products called “Your Accounting Buddy” and “Lawyer on a Disk.” Both products have been around for many years and they are losing market share to newer competitors that are a bit slicker in appearance and easier to use. Your team has been assigned the job of upgrading these products so they can beat the competition. To do this, you decide you want to try to employ Pink’s “six essential R-Directed aptitudes.” Here’s how that might work.

DESIGN. Pink says we should consider “Not just function but also DESIGN. It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.” So, after a little discussion related to Design, our team decides that our two products in their current state really are “merely functional.” A little more brainstorming and we decide that it would be great if instead of software-only products, we could create a smooth, shiny, hand-held device that we can talk to, ask questions, and have a pleasant voice provide us with accounting and legal advice. Dreaming big, we decide that maybe it could be as sleek and appealing to handle with as a Blackberry or an iPhone! So the more we think about it, the more it seems that our design really could become beautiful and engaging!

STORY. Pink says we should consider “Not just argument but also STORY. When our lives are brimming with information and data, it’s not enough to marshal an effective argument. Someone somewhere will inevitably track down a counterpoint to rebut your point. The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.” OK then. With this in mind, we ask ourselves: “What stories are hidden inside this product of ours? What life-changing epiphanies could it produce when customers use it? What little narratives could we come up with to show that it’s not just answering dry accounting and legal questions, but making a difference in quality of life for the users. At this point our project team resolves to go out and talk to customers and gather testimonials to help generate several powerful stories that will ring true for our product.

SYMPHONY. Pink encouages us to think about “Not just focus but also SYMPHONY. Much of the Industrial and Information Ages required focus and specialization. But as white-collar work gets routed to Asia and reduced to software, there’s a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together, or what I call Symphony. What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis — seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.” Playing off this suggestion, our team tries to imagine all the different jobs, industries, life styles, cultural contexts, and family situations our users may find themselves in. Brainstorming, our team imagines and lists several flip chart pages full of the possible scenarios for using our product. Then we identify key themes running through all these that would generate a central vision or “symphonic” perspective about the product. Specifically, when we see all the pieces pulled together what emerges is a vision of a survival tool… a sort of Swiss Army knife for your financial and legal life.

EMPATHY. Pink challenges us to think about “Not just logic but also EMPATHY. The capacity for logical thought is one of the things that makes us human. But in a world of ubiquitous information and advanced analytic tools, logic alone won’t do. What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.” OK. So we ask ourselves:  What are the fears, hopes, and dreams our customers might be thinking about when they pick up our little accounting and legal advisor? What wishes are they hoping it will fulfill? What technical problems might they bump into when using it? What professional vocabulary (that is, what accountant and lawyer talk) might put them off or simply confuse them? Seeking deeper empathy, we decide to run a few focus groups to get answers to these questions.  The object of the game:  Help us get inside our customer’s perspective and really empathize with them.

PLAY. Pink suggests: “Not just seriousness but also PLAY. Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games, and humor. There is a time to be serious, of course. But too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general well-being. In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need to play.” So… with “play” in mind, we decide to set up a game sharing session for our project team. We have everyone bring in examples of the coolest games we have on our phones and other hand-held devices. And we do some light-hearted brainstorming about the kind of fun stuff we might stick in our little product that might help our users take a break, have some fun, or even challenge themselves with on-board quizzes on lawyer or accountant-speak.

MEANING. And finally, Pink, in effect, tells us to pay attention to more than the features, bells, and whistles of our product. He says we should focus on: “Not just accumulation but also MEANING. We live in a world of breathtaking material plenty. That has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment.” So… we step back and ask ourselves… just what is the meaning of this tool we are building? In the grand scheme of things… in peoples’ lives, in their work, what might it mean? And as we begin to search for the meaning of our product, our discussion ultimately leads us to the rather profound realization that what we are creating… our little pocket consultant … is in reality a tool for personal empowerment! Our users will have powerful decision-making technologies in the palms of their hands, available instantly, without needing to track down and consult anyone else. So, ultimately, the meaning of this wonderful thing we will be creating is personal empowerment and freedom!

Wow! Look what just happened here! By engaging our six essential right brain aptitudes (Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning) we’ve not only invented a product that will beat the competition and empower the people who use it, we’ve come up with a project for ourselves that is going to be fun, challenging, and career-stretching to work on! In short, we’ve inspired ourselves! All this from simply engaging our right brain aptitudes!

Here's a Challenge for Teams:


Reflect on these questions:

  • Think about your current project schedules. What opportunities might there be to step back, brainstorm, and help the team apply their right brain aptitudes?
  • Visualize each project team member. Who might have more to give than they are now giving if only their right brain aptitudes were honored and encouraged?
  • Think about any competitors (inside or outside your organization) who are creating similar products or services. What evidence is there that these competitors are leveraging their right brain aptitudes?

Team Challenges

Ask your team:

  • Have you ever felt yourself holding back or avoiding “outside the box” thinking? If so, why?
  • How can we as an organization encourage more right brain thinking?
  • Review Pink’s brief definitions of the right brain aptitudes of Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning.
    • Which of these do we stifle?
    • Which of these are we good at?
    • Which of these would you like to learn more about?

Project Manager Challenges

  • Get everyone on your project (or in your entire organization) a copy of Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. It will likely wake up your team to entirely new perspectives!
  • Examine Pink’s Portfolio sections in A Whole New Mind and figure out how you can apply the activities to your project team.
  • Conduct a brainstorming session with your team that’s divided into six parts: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. In each part of the session:
    • Begin with Pink’s definition of that particular aptitude.
    • Brainstorm about all the ways this aptitude might be applied on our project.
    • Encourage discussion about ways this aptitude is stifled and how the forces stifling the aptitude might be neutralized.