The Innovation Engine

Bipartisan Innovation


Does your company lean too far to the right? Or would a visitor walk through the halls and conclude, "What a bunch of leftists"? We aren't talking politics. We're talking thinking styles.

Consider this great interview question: "Do you have ideas in words or pictures?" Typically, people fall into one of the two of each of these sets of camps: analytic or creative; rational or intuitive; logical or random; words or symbols; planning or impulsive; and logic or feeling. We usually refer to this in shorthand as either left-brain (logical) or right-brain (creative) thinking. With a simple question, you can tell if your next hire is a right or left brainer. If innovation drives your company, it's a critical question.

Obviously, no one camp is "correct," and of course everyone relies on both sides of the brain to function and think through everyday-life decisions big and small. But we all know we have a bias. We tend to rely more on either left or right. If you're an effective leader, you not only recognize your strengths but also have compensated for your potential weaknesses.

Opposite Skills

In a previous column, we talked about why you, as a leader, want to have a yin for your yang. If you are a left brainer, you want to make sure you work closely with someone who is more creative. And vice versa.

Well, it's no different for your company as a whole. If your organization relies primarily on one kind of thinking over another, it means you lack the balance of passion and perspective necessary to make ideas happen most efficiently. As the cliché says, "If you are a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail." We end up seeing things that just confirm the way we view the universe, and we filter out anything that conflicts with our world view because we have so much invested in it.

We have worked with people and companies who see every challenge as an opportunity to generate new ideas, despite the fact that they have a pipeline full of tested ideas ready to launch. Conversely, we've seen companies desperately in need of a new, game-changing idea, but they can't seem to stop refining or over-engineering ideas that have failed repeatedly. Here's another cliché for you: The fish stinks from the head down. If either of the above scenarios rings true, you're likely an out-of-balance leader or work for a company led by one side of the brain. Admitting you have a problem is, as they say, the first step toward recovery.

Different Perspectives

As a courageously aware leader, you want to draw fully on the left and right brains of your organization—more specifically, the left- and right-brain thinkers. That way you involve people who see the data differently, make different assumptions, and ultimately know when the real challenge is good ideas or good process; form or function; qualitative or quantitative; operations or marketing, etc.

So how do you do it? First remember that you need a balance of left- and right-brain thinkers in almost everything you do—especially if you're doing primarily a left-brain task or right-brain task. (Note to parents: You probably see this healthy balance when it comes to how the two of you deal with your children. When one of you is thinking emotionally, the other thinks rationally. When it comes to our kids, we almost instinctively find the appropriate right-brain/left-brain approach.)

We believe every task should rely on passionate, expert input from both sides of the brain. For example, many may view segmentation as a mathematical modeling exercise. This is partially true. But we've seen the absolute best results when the data are viewed with an "emotional" lens as well. A highly creative, emotionally intelligent thinker less familiar with the data will often make connections that the numbers miss.

History is filled with examples of failed innovation launched by baffled statisticians. Out-of-balance thinking explains why economists are too often wrong. Another example: the unfortunate right-brain practice of brainstorming without first understanding which insights your customer values the most. Understanding what to brainstorm should be put into left brainers' hands—as should the rest of the rigor and process required to keep the creative folks on task.

Balance at BMW

The key takeaway here: You're seeking a good balance of left- and right-brain thinkers throughout the innovation process.

The Mini Cooper is built by BMW, maker of arguably the best-engineered cars in the world. The success of the Mini, however, is a great example of both sides of the brain at work. The playful design, marketing, and positioning of the Mini along with solid construction exemplify the type of balance we endorse. Think for a moment what would have happened to the Mini if the left brainers ruled the day. Do you think we'd know it has "go-kart-like handling?" Would it have the broad appeal that it now enjoys? We think not.

So, are your company's innovation efforts being led by the right brain, left brain, or a healthy balance of both? If you're good at innovation, the answer is, without a doubt, both.

Do you think in pictures or words? If you think in pictures, imagine a partner who can help you get your ideas from point A to Z. If you think in words, just do the math. What would happen if you had twice as many good ideas to drive through the machine that you already have humming. See? Bipartisan innovation isn't that hard after all.

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Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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