Interview: Daniel Pink

Alistair Schofield speaks to Daniel Pink, journalist, commentator and best-selling author of “A Whole New Mind”.

Foreword

In his book “A Whole New Mind”, Dan Pink makes the assertion that western economies have moved out of the Information Age and into what Dan describes as the Conceptual Age, an age that requires different thinking and an approach to business that is more creative, conceptual and “right-brained”.
When a review of A Whole New Mind was posted on the Extensor web site in August 2006 it generated a lot of interest and quickly became one of the pages on the web site to receive the most hits.  I was therefore delighted that I managed to meet up with Dan during a visit to the UK towards the end of 2006.

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Your book makes frequent references to right- and left-brain thinking, can you briefly explain what this means?

“Neuroscientists have known for a long time that different parts of the brain are responsible for processing different types of information and for directing different types of thinking.  In broad terms, the left half of the brain is responsible for more logical, structured and sequential types of thinking and the right half for more holistic, conceptual and simultaneous types of thinking.”


“For example, if you are listening to someone speaking it is the left side of your brain that will be interpreting meaning from the words they use, while the right side will be interpreting meaning from the tonality of their speech, the expression on their face and their body-language.”

“The reason I refer to right- and left-brain thinking throughout the book is that it serves as a useful metaphor for more structured and linear thinking versus more sequential and creative thinking.”

Why do you think the distinction is important for today’s businesses?
“The basic premise of the book is that, until recently, the success of our businesses and institutions has largely been driven by left-brained thinking.  For example, during the last century we have achieved fantastic improvements in efficiency and productivity by using machines and computer technology to automate numerous logical and repetitive tasks.  To assist us in this process we have encouraged our young people to study subjects such as engineering and accountancy to assist us in eking out more and more efficiency savings.”

 “However, where a 10% gain in productivity would once have been a good achievement, we are now facing competition from Asia where labour costs are a fraction of ours.  It is therefore important that we find different ways to compete and establish value, and this is where more right-brained thinking comes in.”

Is the pressure for more right-brained thinking simply coming about as a result of commoditization and falling manufacturing costs?

“I believe the need is driven both by price pressure from overseas competitors and also by the demands of consumers, who are increasingly looking beyond the utility value of products and more towards the aesthetic qualities of those products.”

“For example, while I was researching the book I came across a designer fly swat.  Whereas you could buy a perfectly good fly swat in a hardware store for a few pence, these retail in the UK at about £5.  The utility value of the product is therefore a few pence whereas, what I call the ‘significance’ of the product, accounts for the remainder.”

“This doesn’t just apply to esoteric products like designer fly swats.  Robert Lutz, a senior executive at General Motors recently said that they are in the arts and entertainment business.  This is tacit recognition of the fact that their vehicles need to deliver ‘significance’ as well as ‘utility’ if they are going to sell their products and maximize their margins.”

But haven’t products always been a combination of design and function?

“I am not saying that this is new, simply that the difference between the utility value and the significance value has widened.  While the utility cost has fallen dramatically as a result of greater manufacturing efficiencies, people’s wealth levels have increased such that they are prepared to pay the extra for the significance of the product.  For example, can you imagine your grandparents buying a designer fly swat?”

“The point is that if you are launching a new product for western markets today, the design element is relatively more important than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago.  Since it is the left side of the brain that will assess the utility value of a product and the right side that will assess its significance, manufacturers need to place greater emphasis on the right-brained attributes of their products.”

The brain dominance profiling we carry out as part of our training programmes indicates that the more senior the person concerned, the more left-brained they are likely to be.  Do you think that this is because left-brained people are better at business or because organisations have simply prized left-brained attributes more highly when recruiting for senior positions?

“I certainly don’t think that you can say that left-brained people are better at business, indeed the precise opposite may be true.  A recent study found that self-made millionaires were four times more likely to be dyslexic than the rest of the population *.  Dyslexic people struggle with left-brained thinking and the linear, sequential and alphabetic reasoning at its core.  As a result, dyslexic people tend to be more right-brained.”
“As for the selection process, I think that this has tended to favour left-brained people as a high proportion of the top jobs have tended to go to people who did well in their exams at college, and our education and examination system has tended to favour left-brained people.”

You clearly believe that this situation needs to change, but do you think that it is changing or that it will change?

“I think the evidence of change is all around.  We already have senior business leaders like Bob Lutz at General Motors, Steve Jobs at Apple and A G Lafley at Proctor & Gamble all saying that they need more right-brained people in their businesses.”

“This thinking from the top is inevitably feeding through into the recruitment process and, at least in America, we are seeing a dramatic increase in the numbers of people going into more creative jobs.  For example, the number of graphic designers in the US has increased tenfold in just the last decade.”

“And the tide has turned in education also.  It is now harder to get onto UCLA’s MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programme than it is to get into Harvard to do an MBA.  Even in the more left-brained disciplines a lot of the colleges are recognising that they need to develop the more right-brained aspects of those disciplines.  For example, there is an engineering college where they are running classes in poetry and prioritising applications from students who play a musical instrument.”

Do you believe that right-brainedness can be taught?

“I don’t think it is a question of training, more a question of use.  The brain is like a muscle, if you exercise one part of it more than another it is inevitable that that part will become stronger relative to the other.”
“The problem is that both our education system and our companies have emphasised left-brained skills in the past, so for most business people it is the left half of the brain that has had the most exercise.” 

“As we have discussed, that is now changing so I believe that it is inevitable that in time right-brained thinking will become more prevalent in our organisations.  However, in my opinion, to capitalise on the opportunities presented in the Conceptual Age, organisations need to do more to accelerate that process.”

Can you give me some examples of the type of exercises you would suggest for developing the right side of your brain?

“In my book I describe the six right-brain attributes that I believe are key – Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning – and for each I provide a whole bunch of exercises you could do.  For example, one of them is to carry a notebook with you for a week and write down all the examples you see of good and bad design.  Doing something like this is training your mind to look at things in a different way.”

“Alternatively you might like to do what I did and go on an art course.  The course I attended was run by the son of Betty Edwards who wrote the book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’.  At the start of the week I drew a self-portrait that was truly awful.  It looked more like a drawing of a Mr Potato Head toy rather than a portrait of me.  By the end of the week I drew another self-portrait that might not win any awards, but which was infinitely better than the first.  The difference was that during the week I had not so much learned how to draw, but more that I had learned how to see.” 

“As my tutor explained, when the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing, the mind is free to see relationships and to integrate those relationships into a whole.  In essence, this is what you need to do to be creative, which is why people often have their most creative thoughts while taking a bath or walking the dog – it’s when the left brain is idle.”

Given the changing requirements for our businesses, do you look to the future with enthusiasm or trepidation?

“Definitely with huge enthusiasm!  The world is already an exciting place, but just think how much more exciting it is going to get if our businesses, which have long-since been bastions of boredom, start to become really creative organisations.”

* Charlotte Gill, “Dyslexics Bank of Disability”, Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia) Oct. 2003.

Dan is a contributing editor at Wired and has written articles on business and technology for the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and other publications.  A popular lecturer, he has also provided analyses on dozens of television and radio broadcasts and served as a business consultant for numerous Fortune 100 companies.  Before becoming a free agent, Dan served as chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and as an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labour Robert B. Reich.

For more information visit Dan’s web site at: www.danpink.com

For more information on the subject of Brain Dominance visit www.mybrain.co.uk.

Alistair Schofield is MD of Extensor.