Thirty years ago, a high-potential manager
in a training class at General Electric's corporate university
listened as my father, Ned Herrmann, then head of GE's
management education, discussed research he was developing on
how the brain affects day-to-day operations.
Struggling to find relevance, the manager remarked, "Learning about
the brain is certainly interesting, but Ned, what does the brain
have to do with managing?"
"Everything!" Herrmann replied.
By contrast, those learning about whole brain thinking today are
often struck by its real-world impact and applications. A manager
in a recent whole brain thinking leadership program exclaimed: "If
only I had known this years ago! It would have saved me so much
time and frustration!"
Yet, even in the midst of an explosion of information about the
brain - from the plethora of studies and books to the emergence of
new fields ("neuro-fill-in-the-blank") to the deluge of programming
ranging from Charlie Rose to the nightly news - many questions
What do the brain and whole brain thinking have to do with work
performance? What have we learned, and what are the implications
for the 21st century? What do you need to know now to increase
performance results? And what must we, as workplace performance
professionals, do to make full use of the diversity of brains in
What is whole brain thinking?
Originally inspired by the popular left brain - right brain
research into brain specialization, the concept of a "whole brain"
has evolved into a useful but often poorly defined framework for
learning and performance.
We know that the brain functions as a whole system - a valuable sum
of its parts - integrating the various specialized functions of the
asymmetrical brain. All current research continues to reinforce
this initial finding of the late 1970s: that the 100 billion
neurons in the brain are indeed specialized.
As neuroanamotist Jill Bolte Taylor describes it in her book My
Stroke of Insight, "Although each of our cerebral hemispheres
processes information in uniquely different ways, the two work
intimately together when it comes to just about every action we
take. The more we understand about how our hemispheres work
together to create our perception of reality, the more successful
we will be in understanding the natural gifts of our own brains."
The first critical takeway from whole brain thinking that we need
to understand is that we are designed to be whole. The brain is
specialized, and the degree of specialization affects how we think
and what we pay attention to. We do not function with "half a
brain" as the terms "left brained" and "right brained" imply. In
fact, the brain's very design gives us the opportunity to think in
terms of and versus or.
This is not new information, although the advent of popular books,
such as Daniel Pink's The Whole New Mind, which focuses on
the power of right brain thinking, has contributed a new level of
general awareness to the subject.
But as Pink himself recently said to me, "Left brain approaches
haven't become obsolete. They've become insufficient. What people
need today isn't one side of the brain or the other, but a whole
We are designed to be whole, but our brains have developed favoring
certain types of thinking and learning over others, and those
preferences have consequences. The good news is that because we are
designed to be whole, we have the ability to think in a whole brain
way, even though we have a tendency to default to our preferences.
Therein lies the key to competitive advantage - the individual or
organization that develops the ability to create and communicate in
new ways, without limits.
New learning about learning
What has changed? Technology, for one, has
opened the door to faster and more in-depth research than was
possible when the early studies were conducted.
To perform his initial experiments demonstrating specialization, my
father actually wired me up to an EEG for testing. Today's much
less invasive technology has enabled us to learn significantly more
about how the brain works.
How often have you wondered why a learner struggles with a given
activity? The wide range of diagnostic devices now available to us
can monitor brain activity in new ways, and that has led to an
array of new findings. For example, one fascinating study explained
why infants can learn any language without difficulty, yet adults
struggle hearing sounds as they attempt to learn new languages.
New studies conducted by Daniel Goleman (author of books on
emotional and social intelligence) and others have generated a
growing body of research that has led to new insight into how
people are affected by the design of the brain. As author and
Harvard researcher Clayton Christensen points out in the book
Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way
the World Learns, this research shows that "people learn in
different ways - some of this is encoded in our brains at birth;
other differences emerge based on what we experience in life."
The second takeaway about whole brain thinking is that we need to
understand that the design of our brain affects the way we learn.
Learning actually creates new neuronal connections. As learning
professionals, it is essential to have a solid foundation of
knowledge about the brain to effectively drive learning outcomes.
From there, we can use practical tools to diagnose learners and
apply that knowledge to raise organizational performance.
When it comes to learning design, whole brain thinking and learning
is, in a nutshell, your "killer app." Understanding learners'
thinking and learning styles is the first step toward developing
learning that engages and sticks. (See "The Learner: What We Need
to Know" in the ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning
How to use whole brain thinking
With performance improvement critical to success in these difficult
times, we must identify the areas where a whole brain approach can
have the greatest impact.
Are you struggling, as many others are, with an increased workload
but fewer resources? The solution rests not in using our brains
more (we don't have unlimited capacity), but in using them more
Author and thought leader Charles Handy asked CEOs what percentage
of the brainpower was actually used in their organizations. The
response: about 35 percent. Most audiences I work with agree, with
many citing numbers as low as 2 percent. Clearly there is an
opportunity for improvement (being mindful rather than mind-full)
by tapping into the brainpower available to us.
So, the third critical takeaway we need to understand is that a
whole brain approach helps us get more from our collective
brainpower. Whole brain thinking can build bridges between
functions, generations, and levels, and between any "disconnects"
that exist in an organization. This in turn contributes to reaching
greater productivity, innovative solutions, increased speed, and
even cultural transformation.
With a common understanding of thinking preferences and the
benefits of whole brain thinking, people see the necessity and
utility of diverse thought. At that point, we can begin fully
leveraging the individual and collective brainpower of the
This is an approach that IBM has used to achieve many successes
within its global leader development program.
IBM's globally integrated workforce gives it a competitive
advantage in serving clients, says Rich DeSerio, manager of the IBM
leadership development programs' Global Design Team.
"To be truly global requires that all IBMers be culturally
adaptable in all its forms," says DeSerio. "This extends beyond
just understanding our cultural diversity to using this diversity
to extend that competitive advantage. Whole brain thinking allows
us to understand, appreciate, and most importantly, leverage the
diversity of thought that naturally exists in our company."
Whole brain thinking also shows us that we all learn differently,
have access to different thinking preferences, and flex our
thinking when the situation demands it.
Need buy-in? Use your whole brain
When budgets are tight and proving value is critical, whole brain
thinking provides a framework for harnessing all the brainpower at
Why not start with our own profession? For years, I have heard
leaders in our field say that they want a "seat at the table." This
struggle to prove the business value of our function is often
rooted in a tendency to speak from our own preferences rather than
adjusting for the needs and expectations of senior business
In Herrmann International's 30 years of research, we have gathered
more than 1 million data samples, and clear patterns have surfaced.
The data reveals that workplace performance
professionals have their own specialized preferences, while
senior and "C-level" executives tend to be more whole brained
in their thinking, with a tilt toward their functional
background or expertise (see
Figure 1). The workplace performance professional's
frustrations frequently come from a failure to use a whole brain
approach when attempting to demonstrate the value and
return-on-investment (or, as I like to define it, intelligence) of
their core work.
A training manager once told me, "I can't seem to get them to
acknowledge the improvements we've achieved." What I found was that
he had overlooked a critical piece of "A quadrant" thinking that
all senior leaders need to see pre- and postbenchmark data.
In another organization, a lack of "B quadrant" thinking led to a
rocky rollout of a global change initiative because last-minute
changes were made to correct overlooked logistics, communication,
and management issues.
How many e-learning initiatives have sat on "virtual shelves"
without adoption by target users? A technically perfect e-learning
curriculum that doesn't culturally fit or hasn't been positioned
for value is doomed to fail because it overlooks the "C quadrant"
needs of customers.
Years ago, I worked with a very enthusiastic learning and
development group that was launching a new training program. When
asked by a visiting senior executive how this aligned with
corporate strategy (important to the "D quadrant") they could not
give an immediate or compelling answer.
Not only are individuals designed to be whole, our data shows that
organizations are whole brain entities, too. Thus, key initiatives
must be whole brained to meet the organization's needs. If we do
not begin applying whole brain thinking, our profession will remain
marginalized as "soft stuff" - prisoners of our own preferences,
focusing uniquely on the learning aspects that we feel are most
important but that we are unable to sell to decision makers.
Diverse by design
Whole brain teams are also producing big dividends for many
organizations. A six-year study conducted with the U.S. Forest
Service using the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI)
demonstrated that whole brain teams can be up to 66 percent more
effective than randomly assigned teams. A few caveats: One whole
brain thinker per team is essential to help bridge different mental
modes. And more than seven team members make it exponentially more
difficult to manage through the diversity.
Fred Keeton, chief diversity officer at Harrah's, uses this
approach to solve complex challenges by building "diverse -
by-design" teams composed of cognitively diverse members. With
diverse - by-design teams, we can see a significant increase in
creative and innovative output. This premise was at the core of
Ned's initial research and has proven to hold true.
The fourth and final critical takeaway is that it only works when
you use it. Thirty years later, we still hear people saying that
they "don't do" a certain type of thinking or can't be creative
because they are "not right brained."
Remember, It's not right versus left; it's your whole brain. You
just need to learn how to access and use it. To be efficient and
creative, seek out people who might make you uncomfortable but who
will provide a different perspective. It may turn out to be the
Several years ago, a global pharmaceutical
executive challenged his learning and development team to
reduce the time to train new sales reps from 24 to 12 months.
They used a framework of whole brain thinking to make it
The initiative began with an analysis of the mental demands of the
sales function as mapped across the whole brain model. After
discovering their own thinking preferences (via the HBDI), sales
reps learned how to apply that knowledge to mastering the job and
making productive connections with clients.
In addition, sales coaches learned how to adjust their thinking
styles to better serve the needs of the reps they coached, and the
learning and development team used whole brain learning design to
ensure that training and reinforcement tools would effectively
engage the various thinking preferences in the group.
The company not only achieved but surpassed its goal, reducing job
mastery time to seven months. During a period of three years, it
also recorded increased sales revenue and improved results in its
key sales process metrics. What performance objectives in your
organization would benefit from this type of improvement?
The era of and
Now more than ever, our environment demands that we embrace the
concept of and, not or, to be successful. There
is power in the paradox that comes from diverse perspectives. Whole
brain thinking gives us that "killer app" to put them to work and
To get the most out of our organizational brainpower, we must start
by using the whole brain framework as a lens for assessing
strategic initiatives and clarifying challenges. Our research has
shown that better problem solving involves all four quadrants of
the whole brain model.
Next we must design learning and performance programs to meet
strategic objectives based on how our customers' (both internal and
external) brains work by applying a whole brain approach.
Finally, as a profession, we have to learn to think like business
leaders, serving our organizations using our whole brains, if we
hope to have a "seat at the table."
What does whole brain thinking have to do with performance?
Everything! Ignore it at your peril. t+d