Professional engineer Stu Walesh wants to release the leader within you. A multidimensional and honored career has enabled him to do just that. Drawing on experience from his work in the public, private, and academic sectors, and from tenures as a project manager, department head, marketer, legal expert, professor, and college engineering dean, Stu has always called on engineers to team their technical side with the skills for leadership success. Now an independent consultant providing leadership, management, engineering, education/training, and marketing services, Stu remains active as an author, currently working on Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers. Stu will be making regular contributions to The Leadership Imperative.
In response to a client’s request to suggest topics I could present or facilitate at their annual senior manager’s meeting, my ideas included “Working Smarter Using Brain Basics.” The response of the 5 top executives I was working with was unanimous – no interest! One of them explained their position by saying something like this: “We are in the trenches ten hours each day and don’t have time for philosophical, academic, and theoretical stuff like that.”
Their negative response was surprising, because in my proposal I tried to explain that if they knew some basics about how our amazing brain works, they could work smarter. That is, they could individually and collectively be more effective-efficient and creative-innovative.
OK – I get it. Apparently I failed to communicate even though my intent was hyperpractical, and that was to shorten trench-time or even get them out of the trenches and position them to innovate and lead. That incident is history. We went on to select marketing, strategic planning, and leadership presentations, all of which went well.
The described incident is consistent with the push-back I’ve encountered from engineering organization leaders over the past few years as I’ve studied, written, and spoken about working smarter using brain basics. However, I can’t let go of trying to help engineers work smarter, basing that effort partly on what we’ve learned about the human brain in the past 2 decades or so. Clinical neuropsychologist Paul D. Nussbaum wrote, “The human brain is the most brilliant and magnificent system ever designed…. There is perhaps no greater untapped resource in the universe than the human brain…. The human brain is no longer the domain of academia and medicine.” Shouldn’t you, as an engineer leader or aspiring leader, want to personally and organizationally make full use of what is being learned about the brain?
You don’t have to become a brain surgeon to make better use of your brain.
You may be thinking that we’re going off on a tangent. You want to be a great engineer, not a brain surgeon. I understand; but knowing a selective bit about your brain will help you become a great engineer. Consider an analogy. You bought a used car and want it to get better gas mileage. You therefore google “gas mileage” and study and experiment with selected aspects of your car, such as tire types and pressure, engine tuning, wheel alignment, and use of the accelerator. As a result, gas mileage improves. You don’t have to become an expert mechanic to get better mileage. Similarly, you don’t have to become a brain surgeon to make better use of your brain. However, you do need to know brain basics.
My experience shows that you can use a simple two-step approach to enable individuals and groups to work smarter. As the first step, you tap recent useful neuroscience discoveries. Examples are lateralization, the very different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, neuroplasticity, conscious and subconscious thinking, dominance of habits, negativity bias, and how to care for the brain.
I realize that on hearing some of these terms for the first time, “brain surgeon” or “psychologist” may again come to mind. However, given the complicated concepts, theories, processes, and tools that we engineers routinely deal with, I assure you that brain basics are readily grasped by you as an engineer and leader. For example, the recent (past few decades) discovery of the brain’s neuroplasiticty means that the brain is more like a muscle than a mechanism. With special efforts we can continue to strengthen that muscle well into old age, in that we can grow new neurons (brain cells) and increase the connections between neurons.
A half a brain is better than none; a whole brain would be better.
In the second step, one can apply tools that build on brain basics and enable an individual or team to take a more powerful whole-brain approach. “A half a brain is better than none; a whole brain would be better,” this according to Betty Edwards, author of the book with the dual-meaning title Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Some of the brain-science-based tools are borrowing brilliance, Medici Effect, habit formation/replacement, mind mapping, fishbone diagramming, take a break, what if?, freehand drawing, listening to music, 6 thinking caps, and biomimicry.
Again, these tools may sound strange. However, they are all quickly learned and rapidly applied methods by which an individual, but preferably a group, can focus on and resolve an issue, problem, or opportunity. For instance, your subconscious mind controls your habits and habits dominate half or more of your thoughts and actions. Want to be more effective and efficient? Then replace your undesirable habits – and knowing brain basics helps you do that.
Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson is commonly thought to have said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” He didn’t. He actually said this: “If a man has good corn or wood or boards or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” Regardless of what he actually said, he meant that society values new ideas, creativity, and innovation. More bluntly, Journalist Geoff Colvin warns, “In a world of forces that push toward the commoditization of everything, creating something new and different is the only way to survive.” Brain basics coupled with related collaboration tools will help engineers and their organizations do more than survive; they will thrive.
Why are these brain basics and whole-brain tools typically rejected by engineers?
So why are these two-step brain basics and whole-brain tools approaches typically rejected by executives and managers of engineering organizations? I have some conjectures, such as fear of failure when trying something very new; belief that creativity and innovation are natural, not learned; discomfort with creative, artistic types; and the cumulative results of the left-brain orientation of K-through-college formal education. But those are my conjectures; you are the audience who has the answers, so share your thoughts.