Category Archives: Brain

Walking in a Straight Line

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” — Alvin Toffler

Robert Krulwich of NPR distilled decades of research in an attempt to answer the question, “why can’t humans walk in a straight line when blindfolded.”  For over 80 years, scientist have been baffled by the fact that we seem incapable to walk in a straight line if we don’t have sight of a visible guidepost like the sun, the moon or a mountaintop.

With the help of animator Benjamin Arthur, Krulwich used four experiments conducted in the 1920‘s to illustrate this phenomena:

1.  A scientist asks a friend to walk across a field in a straight line, blindfolded…

2.  Three men leave a barn on a very foggy day and set out to walk to a point a mile, straight ahead…

3.  A blindfolded man is asked to jump in to a lake and swim in a straight line to the other side…

4.  A man is asked to drive his car straight across an empty Kansas field…

The curious thing about Krulwich’s examples is that in each case, the subjects walk in a relatively straight line at first but then slowly start to drift.  As soon as they start to drift, the curve becomes more pronounced and they quickly begin to walk in circles until many of them end up where they began.  In each case, without the ability to see a fixed point in the horizon, people are unable to maintain their original trajectory.

Now I can’t remember the last time I blindfolded myself and tried to walk a straight line across a field, but I have witnessed a similar phenomena when organizations attempt to engage and align teams in continuous improvement.  While teams often start out moving in a common direction, without the ability to consistently see a focused and fixed vision of what they are expected to achieve, they quickly start to fall of the path.  Like the subjects in Krulwich’s examples, teams begin to go in circles at an increasing rate until many of them are back where they started.  What’s worse, is that teams are not just back where they started, they are also now frustrated with leadership because they worked hard to make a positive contribution only to end up confused and demoralized.

A leaders job is to define where the organization needs to go and then empower each team member to accomplish the goals through active problem solving and experimentation.  The problem is that merely defining the goal is not enough.  To keep the organization from walking in circles, the leader needs to ensure that each team member can consistently 1) see a focused and fixed vision of what they are trying to achieve and 2) design a system that allows everyone to immediately see when they start to deviate from the path.  Without clear and consistent goals and the ability to see when they start to drift, leaders, in effect, send their team members across the field blind folded.


Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

“Seeing” Red

In 2009, Charles Jacobs published a book entitled Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.  In it, he discusses the power of mental paradigms and what leaders must do to change behavior.  According to Jacobs research, we interpret the world and structure our behavior according to a narrative of our own creation.  A story we repeatedly play in our heads which helps us define, analyze and categorize all we see and experience.  More importantly, it is a story with an implicit set of rules that define the way we believe the world works and dictates how we behave in response to it.

Because this story defines our mental paradigm, is self-reinforcing and drives our daily behavior, the only way to change behavior is to invalidate the current paradigm and replace it with a “new storyline.”  To do this, we must create cognitive dissonance and demonstrate that the rules that govern the current worldview no longer apply.  We need to shock the system and interject something new…something unexpected.  By introducing information that runs counter to what is expected, the right hemisphere of the brain fires up, takes a step back and reflects.  Since the right hemisphere is responsible for reflective consciousness, processing “big picture concepts” and creative expression, we need to have it engaged for people to drive daily innovation.

So how do we do this?  Since the brain is programed to reinforce the status quo, how do we introduce new information in a way that stops the brain in its tracks?  Visual management.

When done right, a simple visual (coupled with clear expectations) provides the brain with new information about the status of a process and presence of an abnormality.  Team members are quickly able to see whether the process is performing as expected or a problem has occurred.  Whereas without the visual, the story told may have reinforced a worldview that everything was “ok,” the presence of the visual forces the brain to take a step back, reflect, and reconcile its current paradigm with the new information.

So when driving continuous improvement, never underestimate the power of simple meaningful visuals.  Our brains are programmed to see, analyze and interpret information based on a self-reinforcing story playing in our head.  We construct our own view of the world and the only way to change our thinking (and thus our behavior) is to be presented with new information in a way that can’t be ignored.  Often the simple act of creating “a spot of red in a sea of green” can be the catalyst for significant behavioral change.

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey

Build In Order to Think

In his new book Change by Design, Tim Brown presents the idea that we should learn by making…or as he puts it, instead of thinking about what to build, we should “build in order to think.” The brain and the hand are inextricably linked. We rely on the use of our hands to help our brain process information and complete its cognitive search for patterns. Put another way by Stuart Brown (TED 2008), “The human hand in manipulation of objects is the hand in search of a brain, the brain is in search of a hand and play is the medium by which those two are linked in the best way.“

This sheds light on the drawbacks of the common approach to process improvement which relies on heavy data analysis to gain insights. This connection between thinking and using your hands would suggest that prototyping and iterative playing with process improvements may be a better way to achieve deeper levels of process thinking and learning, rather than by mere imitation and analysis alone.

Said another way, it is possible, that when we rely on an “intellectual“ approach to collecting and analyzing data in order to improve a process, we may be circumventing the one activity which leads to true thinking and innovation…the act of using our hands and prototyping in order to ”think“ our way through the process redesign.

Given the brain’s partnership with the hands, the key is to focus on the speed and interactivity of your improvements. The faster you put our ideas into the prototyping process, the faster you will begin to learn and refine your ideas. Start now…what is your 70% solution? Get your ideas into play and don’t get too wrapped up in the details.