The Right-Brain Workspace

Right Brain Workspace

Strategy: Overcoming the Linguistic Obstacles to Innovation

Scholar: Dan Pink

"No one is a better manifestation of what this place is all about than Dan Pink," said professor Jeanne Liedtka at the inauguration of Darden's Innovation Lab, a space designed to encourage new approaches to the teaching of innovation and entrepreneurship.

During a lively session with Darden faculty, staff, students and community members, Pink, the bestselling author of The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, Free Agent Nation, A Whole New Mind and Drive, delivered this message: The abilities that we have overlooked and undervalued are now the ones that matter most. So-called "right-brain" skills, such as creativity, artistry, inventiveness and holistic thinking, are essential for business leaders, and they are what the i.Lab has been designed to promote.

The i.Lab, housed in Darden's Sponsors Hall, is an answer to the question of how best to develop creative and innovative thinkers. Not in a standard classroom with four walls and orderly rows of seats, the i.Lab's design emphatically announces. The space features an open floor plan, clusters of small tables for group work, walls and dividers for posting work, an enormous whiteboard, state-of-the art technology and an area with tools and materials for building prototypes. This kind of experiential, team-based and collaborative learning environment represents profound changes that Darden is introducing to its traditional curriculum — in particular, the incorporation of methodologies from other fields, such as design.

Drawing from A Whole New Mind, Pink offered the "right-brain" "left-brain" dichotomy as a powerful metaphor for explaining how the business world has changed: Quantitative and analytical skills are still crucial, but those "left-brain" abilities are no longer sufficient. Workers in the United States and other developed economies need to build their right-brain capabilities in response to three forces.

First, such left-brain tasks as basic accounting and computing, which can be broken down into a sequence of steps, have become a commodity. Once the ticket to a middle-class life in the United States, this kind of work is now fleeing wherever it can be performed the cheapest. Second, much left-brain work is now not only offshored, but also automated. A task preparer in the United States faces competition from workers in Manila and Bangalore, but the real threat, Pink noted, is the tax preparation software TurboTax, which is used by approximately 25 million Americans each year. Third, the material needs of consumers in developed economies have been satisfied to such a degree that companies must now develop offerings that people don't yet realize they desire. Successfully meeting that challenge, Pink said, is an artistic act. In short, Pink said, success depends on the ability to "do work that is hard to outsource, hard to automate, and gives the world something new."

Key to right-brain thinking, Pink explained, are six "senses": design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. The symphonic capacity — the ability to detect patterns in a chaos of information — is the "killer app," Pink said, because it is very hard to outsource or automate. In a recent study in which star performers in organizations were given a battery of cognitive tests, only one skill — the ability to see patterns and "connect the dots" — had a positive correlation with high performance.

Right-brain capabilities are also evident among game-changing entrepreneurs, Pink noted. Researchers at London's Cass Business School have discovered a link between highly creative entrepreneurial people and dyslexia. Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers, Ingvar Kamprad — all brilliant entrepreneurs who suffered from dyslexia — may well have been considered unintelligent in their youth, at a time when dyslexia was not well understood. Perhaps, Pink suggested, at an early age, they began to compensate for their difficulties with sequential processing by developing other strengths, such as the ability to "see around corners," find mentors and delegate tasks to those best suited to perform them. In response to their left-brain struggles, they worked their right brain all the more.

Empathy, the ability to experience the world from another person's perspective, is also difficult to outsource or automate, Pink explained. He offered the example of the Duracell CEO who could not figure out why sales of hearing aid batteries were falling even though the quality of the product was unsurpassed by rivals. Enter a designer, who took one look at the batteries' packaging and realized that the average hearing aid user would have trouble with it. The designer believed that the CEO needed to understand what it was like to be that average user, so he was equipped with thick glasses to blur his vision and gardening gloves to decrease his manual dexterity. He, too, found it difficult to open the package. That insight led to the design of new packaging for the batteries, which turned sales around.

This solution, Pink noted, was rooted in empathy. It also exemplifies the methodologies from the field of design — in this case, ethnographic customer research — that are working their way into the curriculum at Darden and have become, Pink said, a required literacy in the world of business.

What motivates people to do truly innovative and creative work? Not traditional rewards and punishment. Covering some of the material in his most recent book, Drive, Pink explained that carrot-and-stick techniques may generate some activity among workers, but they won't spark innovation. Autonomy will. "The real path to engagement," Pink said, "is a sense of self-direction." He described Zappos.com, where call center employees are given two weeks of training and then offered a chance to leave, for $2,000. Those who remain are left simply to solve customers' problems — without the scripts, monitoring, and time constraints characteristic of most call center operations. The result of this worker autonomy has been soaring customer service scores.

Equally important is a sense of purpose and meaning, Pink said, as people find that the profit motive is not enough to inspire creativity. The "purpose motive" is on the rise: Witness legislation in seven states that has created a new business category — the low-profit limited liability company, or L3C — that is a for-profit enterprise whose primary objective is not profit maximization.

A deep sense of purpose is as important as profit, creativity is as crucial as number crunching — Pink sees in business the merging of two worlds. We are not there yet, he noted. Recruiters still may be looking primarily for left-brain skills, uneasy about hiring someone whose talents may be less tangible. And the curricula in many business schools still focus almost exclusively on the development of quantitative and analytic skills.

But there are signs that business education is rethinking its purpose, despite the difficulties of altering entrenched processes, systems, and mindsets. The i.Lab, he said is just such a sign, embodying the successful merger of what Pink calls "MFA-style thinking and MBA-style thinking."

Business education, Pink mused, may evolve in much the same way technology has. Just as we did with the advent of e-commerce, we will overstate the short-term transformations and understate the long-term ones. "Come back to Darden in ten years," he said, "and you'll see a different institution. Maybe not in two years, but in ten."

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