THE BLOG
11/20/2012 12:18 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Why It's Tough to Innovate in Business: We're "Left-Brained"

Most business people operate inside the proverbial "box" most of the time. As we age, our brains become increasingly more ingrained into familiar patterns and routines. We get comfortable in this place. I've noticed this pattern over my own thirty-year business career across five different industries.

In strategic planning sessions we're often admonished to somehow "think outside the box."

This jargon tends to ring a bit hollow, as typically no specific formula for how to accomplish this feat is suggested. (Or perhaps I missed that session.)

Neuroscientific research indicates that it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of our existing mindsets. Fortunately, however, it is still possible to train our brains to think differently without either dropping acid or traveling to India. (If you've read Steve Jobs' biography, you'll understand.)

Over a dozen years ago, while chairman and CEO of a community bank, I discovered and applied some unconventional thinking processes. I had always been a fan of Benjamin Franklin's Moral Algebra process, more commonly known as the "pro and con" ledger. Learning to tap into the more creative right hemisphere of my brain, however, produced an entirely different type of insight, enabling me to think in a unique manner about both the problems and opportunities facing the bank. Blending the left and right brain approaches truly allowed me to think differently and it paid off handsomely in a dramatic increase in the company's size and earnings per share.

After stepping down at age 50 from the job of a bank CEO, I had the time to pursue my primary interest: learning more about innovation, intuition and what makes people successful. Ultimately I discovered answers in the fields of both neuroscience and psychology. My research included reading primary scientific sources, holding discussions with many esteemed scientists and conducting over 200 interviews with test subjects. The results are contained in a book published this past spring.

One of the fascinating payoffs of my research was discovering the underlying reason why it is more difficult for us to "think outside the box." Our patterns and routines acquired over the course of decades have virtually confined our thinking to the box, or more precisely, to a more left-hemisphere dominant style of analyzing and processing information.

My research led me to the work of Dr. Roger Sperry, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his discovery that each hemisphere of the brain is independent, with a separate set of attributive functions. His findings help explain the logical, linear world in which most of us live. The right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, resulting in the analytical, mathematical, logical, linear thinking of most of the 90 percent of Americans who are right-handed. Conversely, the left side, controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, is now commonly known as the source of artistry, music, intuition, innovation and problem-solving skills.

I believe it is appropriate to consider revolutionizing our thinking about meetings, problem solving and strategy within our organizations, armed with the results of my research. There is a great deal of value in disrupting conventional thought processes, breaking through complacency as a means to thinking differently about the company.

There are many ways to do this. Ask different constituencies and create new questions and/or approaches. Conduct a different type of meeting to break through the "group think" that can result from working on initially vocalized ideas, especially if those ideas come from higher-level executives or respected contributors. Ask participants to write answers first to all the questions. Unexpected ones such as "What would we do differently if we were starting the company from scratch?" can stir things up.

If we want to take another leap, we can take the time-tested steps of changing the venue, adding music and inviting different and fresh perspectives. More importantly, if we want to be on the cutting edge of innovation, we can find ways of tapping into the right brain of the participants.

Why not apply what's been learned in the combined fields of neuroscience and psychology over the past 50 years? We can obtain the same insights in Sperry's initial work to help us to become more innovative and thoughtful at work.

In many industries today, it is difficult to differentiate one company's products and services from another, it's useful to find ways to break through the status quo and what may be decades-old approaches to problem solving and strategizing. My experience has been that most strategic thinking and problem solving sessions consist largely of planning, with far too little time devoted to thinking and innovation.

In several recent cases, organizations I've worked with have been able to tap into the collective right brains of the participants resulting in insights leading to different strategies, solutions and importantly, dramatic improvements in the bottom line. It's time that executives get "beyond the box."