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  • Writer's pictureMinnie Faith

A right way to think

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Right-brained thinking as a key skill for the modern executive

INNOVATION and creative thinking go hand in hand. But today’s corporate leaders are not always encouraged to use their imaginations, especially when it comes to major business deals and decisions. During uncertain times, innovation can take a backseat to well-tested and proven methods of delivering assurances. But novel ideas—and the creative thinking that goes along with them—can be the most effective ways to differentiate your corporation or brand in a competitive economy.

Are you right- or left-brained?

When it comes to idea generation, we typically consider ourselves to be either right-brained people or left-brained people. Left-brained thinkers tend to use logic, facts, and objective means to assess the world, whereas right-brained thinkers are known for using imagination, possibility, emotion, and subjective measures. Left-brainers are methodical and verbal while right-brainers are intuitive and visual.

Certain industries are often thought of as being appropriate for right- or left-brained thinkers. Artists and entrepreneurs are creative types who heavily rely on the imaginative sphere of the right brain. Business executives and managers are frequently logical types who may use the left brain for deductive reasoning and analysis. Of course, all humans use both parts of their brains on a daily basis, but the idea of engaging the right brain more readily is one to seriously contemplate, considering ideas are the global currency of today’s “creative economy.”

Daniel Pink, management expert and author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, believes that because computers can carry out so many of the mathematical and sequential tasks at which the left brain excels, it’s essential that all humans focus substantial time and energy on right-brain thinking. This may be especially true for industries that require a lot of problem solving.

A false choice

But if you think of yourself as a left-brained thinker, think again. Research has shown that we engage both parts of the mind equally on a daily basis. And there is no indication that people preferentially use one side of the brain over the other. Yet the right-versus-left fallacy continues to exist in popular culture.

Helping to debunk the common myth, IDEO founder David Kelley is committed to helping people develop creative confidence. For those who would never call themselves creative, Kelley wants to redirect their self-narrative. “That opting out [of creativity] that happens in childhood . . . moves in and becomes more ingrained by the time you get to adult life,” Kelley has said. You may have noticed this anecdotally in your own life. Someone is labeled a “numbers person” from a young age, pursues opportunities and paths that take him or her further into the world of calculations and quantitative analysis, and never gets to discover whether he or she is creative in other ways. It’s almost as if being told you are a left-brained person is a self-fulfilling prophecy and you become one.

Fortunately, the opposite can also be true. Thinking of yourself as a creative, right-brained thinker can set you on the path to thinking more creatively. So what more can traditional left-brain professionals do to think more creatively and capitalize upon their right-brain potential?

How to inspire creative thinking in a left-brained business

In The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, management professor David Burkus references a certain psychological bias most people have against unique ideas. “We say we want more creativity, but when we are presented with new ideas, we have a hard time recognizing their utility,” says Burkus. “This is something I see in almost all organizations.”

The old habit of outsourcing creative work to design firms is needless and outdated. The resurgent economy should inspire thought leaders in all industries to reconsider how they do business and how they can foster a culture of innovation among employees. Companies such as Clorox have hired creativity consultants or designed their own in-house programs to alter normal thinking patterns in their organization and come up with more imaginative solutions. For example, the company developed a new consumer product by rethinking how to mix two ingredients that couldn’t be combined.

Creativity is everywhere

The next generation of entrepreneurs seems especially ready to recognize the value of whole-mind thinking when it comes to innovation. Young entrepreneurs like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey often have a deeply methodical side (he began as a programmer), but also a complementary creative side that grapples with problems nonlinearly while embracing uncertainty. This type of thinking can spark unexpected breakthroughs and insights, as it did for the popular 140-character microblog when Dorsey was brainstorming how to improve taxicab dispatch software.

So while some well-established business leaders may still believe in a mutually exclusive right-brain/left-brain dichotomy, the more progressive approach is realizing that creativity actually exists in many different forms. Considering what it has done for social media and other channels of e-commerce, promoting this type of holistic-minded business philosophy is essential to better innovation in almost every industry.

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