Doug Garnett’s Blog


Brain Science: How Procedure Shuts Down Innovative Thinking

Brain Science:  <strong>How Procedure Shuts Down Innovative Thinking</Strong>

I’ve been reading the superb McGilchrist book “The Master and His Emissary” about the human brain. Last weekend I encountered a tremendously interesting paragraph deep in the early chapters:

“Problem solving, making reasonable deductions, and making judgements may become harder if we become conscious of the process. Thus rendering one’s thought processes explicit, or analysing a judgement, may actually impair performance, because it encourages the left hemisphere’s focus on the explicit, superficial structure of the problem” (My emphasis.)

Understanding this Quote

McGilchrist’s thesis is that the separate halves of the human brain are unique and each brings important value to our lives. He notes that this is also true in animal brains as well. 

For example, he notes that a bird will use it’s right eye (processed by the left hemisphere) to pick out the edible bits of food from a pile. That same bird, the minute there’s any shadow of potential threat, uses the left eye (processed in the right hemisphere) to pay attention to the developing environment around it. Why? The left hemisphere processes minute detail and uses abstractions to classify what it sees — perfect for picking food out of a pile of sticks. The right hemisphere looks at the whole picture (without getting lost in the detail) in order to understand the gestalt of what’s happening — critical for advance warning of predator attacks.

He suggests the human brain works very similarly. As a result, our right hemisphere looks around and attempt to make sense of the entirety of what we see. The right hemisphere sees exactly what is there without getting distracted by classifications and typology. By contrast, the left hemisphere works in abstractions. If you will, it’s populated by the Platonic ideals of books and letters and tables, mountains, wolves and gorillas.

Some Lessons from McGilchrist’s Observation

  1. Too Many Believe They Become Experts by Conquering the Abstract and the Details. Think about consultant models — and how they have become so ineffective. Think about how many try to show they are experts by rattling off an arcane language about THEIR unique categorization of the world. And then remember:  They aren’t seeing the unique, individual situation in front of them. Instead they are applying abstract theories to avoid the harder work of thinking.
  2. Fuzzy thinking is critical to solving problems. It’s human to demand that people offer clear thinking. Quite often, the best thinking isn’t immediately clear. I know I struggle to express what I detect only as a hint from my sub-concious. I’ve learned that these hints flower into incredible (and profitable) insights when given space to take root and become clear — a bit like a very slow Polaroid picture moving from blank to crisp. Unfortunately, companies and business school training often discourage ever giving ideas time to become clear.
  3. Squint While Looking at Things. I’ve often advised companies, clients, employees, contractors, and students to “squint” as they look at problems. Why? Because it obscures the details so that the big shapes come through. This is a trick which typesetters use to see the “color” of an entire page of text without getting distracted by the specifics of the letters and words.
  4. The Left Hemisphere Sees “Caricatures” of Problems or Opportunities. There’s always, and everywhere, a serious danger that people will take hints from only a few pieces of a situation then jump to an assumption that they understand the whole thing. When they do that, they’re minimizing problems to stereotypes — or caricatures — of the real situation. This is dangerous — innovative solutions come from grasping the unique details. 
  5. Companies Can be Their Own Worst Enemy. Companies too often demand narrowly linear thinking, best practice rules, and rigid procedures. Just think of Six Sigma and all the narrowness of continuous improvement programs. These programs rely on the left hemisphere and ignore the right (it’s too messy). So when companies depend on the appearance of comfort found in these systems they eliminate the potential for smart, innovative thinking to create their future.
  6. Continuous Improvement Programs Kill Innovation. These programs love boxes. So they put everything into boxes measured with metrics. And then they hold seminars telling employees they need to “think outside the box” — while stuffing them back into it. All in all, it’s entirely accidental if anything but small increments of change come from them. (Did I tell you I don’t like the results of these programs?) 

Decisions Structures Often Work Too Hard at Being Explicit

Through my career I’ve run into a variety of structures which sometimes are useful in helping understand a decision. My experience has been that they work best when allowed to be loose.

For example, I like to write down options while doodling and sketching to ponder their differences. What I find unproductive and narrowing is constructing a rigidly defined decision table attempting to evaluate each option according to well defined metrics. (I once worked for a boss who used those tables to arrive, unfailingly, at exactly the wrong answer.)

Business libraries and consultant decks are filled with other rigid applications of formerly good ideas — like rigid use of the SWOT, market positioning, the sales funnel, ISO risk management, decision trees or… It was refreshing to have McGilchrist describe WHY these don’t work.

Using the Left Hemisphere to Kill Innovation

Observers quite often wonder why so little breakthrough innovation happens in big companies. To be clear, not all big companies fail at innovation. Technology based on break through discoveries from AT&T Bell Labs remains at the core of our economy even today. How were they so innovative? They intentionally allowed their scientists to explore at the edges of fuzzy logic and inarticulate explorations.

Most companies, though, struggle with innovation — even Google with their vaunted 20% program. These programs have, since the 1950s, been found to drive small innovation because people focus too much on their work having immediate application (read The Organization Man for more).

I’ve written a great deal around the topic of the fuzzy in corporations.

  • In Practicing on the Bandstand I look at improvisation and how ompanies fear it. Yet improvisation is often the ONLY way to arrive at creative and innovative solutions to problems.
  • My four part series about 11 diseases which kill innovation (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) reveals that seeking the false safety of left hemispheric thinking plays a critical role as each disease kills innovation.
  • And in Innovation Lessons I Learned by Drawing and Painting I look at how lessons from artistic practice have influenced far more than my doodles in my daybook. 

John Lewis also posted this observation in response to the above thinking:  “Have you ever (perhaps in your younger days!) run downstairs two or three steps at a time? If you just do it based on an overall picture of the staircase, it’s fine; but as soon as you lose the big picture and, in the worst case, try to count steps, you’re in trouble!”

Communication Fails When we Demand It to be Linear

One of my sons is a fine young man who is also on the Autism spectrum. That means linear communication is quite challenging for him. This has given my wife and I an up close and personal view of how desperately society demands specific communication.

Years ago, while in early elementary school, the vice principal understood him well. Yet one day he ended up in the middle of a problem in the lunch room. A teacher stepped in to fix it and demanded that he “tell her what’s going on.” He was tongue tied — it was entirely beyond his ability.

In fact, he desperately wanted to do the right thing. But the teacher had demanded a specific verbal answer of the type that worked for HER — not for him. When he couldn’t, she began to get angry and chose to believe he was “acting out” (which agitated him more).

This standoff was heading down a deep hole until the vice principal showed up. She turned to my son, asked “everything okay?” and offered a thumbs up. He returned the thumbs up (physical/symbolic communication works well for him). In a matter of seconds the situation was diffused. With what? With what companies would dismiss as fuzzy thinking and fuzzy communication.

The Right Hemisphere Should Lead While the Left Follows

Companies act like the teacher who demanded that my son communicate the way SHE wanted him to. They demand that their employees rely most on their left hemispheric brains and are very uncomfortable with ideas which arise in the right. In doing so, they limit the abilities of the people who work for them. Yet they continually punish those who may see far better answers which don’t fit the rigid framework the company wants before an idea can be considered “good.”

So the next time you are uncomfortable because you are given a fuzzy answer, remember that amid that fuzziness there just might be the one brilliant spark of creativity that could deliver an incredibly innovative result for your work.

Be well and safe in these crazy times.

©2020 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved

Through my company Protonik LLC based in Portland Oregon, I consult with companies on their efforts around new and innovative products and explore what marketers should learn from the field of complexity science. An adjunct instructor are Portland State University, I also teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising. As a specialty, I also advise a select group of clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or taking existing products to new markets. You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at

Categories:   Business and Strategy