June 2011
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TD Magazine

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A thought leader in the fields of creative thinking, learning and thinking styles and their impact on performance, Ann Herrmann-Nehdi is CEO of Herrmann International. The company originated the Whole Brain® Thinking approach and developed the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument® (HBDI®) assessment tool 30 years ago. Her father, Ned Herrmann, developed the Whole Brain® Thinking approach as a director of management education for GE and went on to establish Herrmann international in 1981. Today, the Whole Brain® Thinking system is used by nine out of 10 of the Fortune 100 to help them achieve better results through better thinking.

Since joining Herrmann International USA 25 years ago, Herrmann-Nehdi has worked to promote a better understanding of how individuals and organizations think and become more effective. She has designed and delivered studies and keynotes for such leading companies and associations as Dupont, IBM, MTV, The American Creativity Association, The Project Management Institute, and ASTD.


Herrmann-Nehdi is currently completing a new book, The Era of And, on leadership in the 21st century. Her credits also include published chapters in The ASTD Handbook for Workplace Performance ("The Learner: What We Need to Know") and in The Trainer's Portable Mentor ("Return on Intelligence: The New ROI" ); the company's work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Oprah Magazine, Business Week, USA Today, as well as T+D magazine.

Herrmann-Nehdi is an advisor to the American Creative Association and the Innovation Network and serves as a faculty member for the Institute of Management Studies.

Q| How did you initially get involved with your father's work and research?

I got involved with the work in a somewhat unusual way. My Dad was doing his research at GE in the 70s as head of management education, and at a very young age, I was invited to participate in some of his early brain-related experiments. I used to come home from school, get wired up to the EEG for testing, and invite my friends over to help him as he began to understand and look at the various aspects of how we think and learn.

I had a keen interest in it, but at the same time, it was "dad's research." And so I went off to France, and as a business person in a company, began to really connect the dots between what I had grown up on - understanding how people think and learn--and some of the challenges people face in the workplace.

I began to think that the French business world could benefit from this. So I started the French company to build usage and application of the work in France. It was kind of an interesting trajectory from being wired up as a child, to getting away from it, and coming back to it with a deep understanding of the applicability aspect of the work.

Ultimately, after I did that, my father, who had since left GE and had created what is now Herrmann international, saw that I had this keen interest and became excited about the opportunity to have someone to continue the work. He invited me to come back to the U.S. I'd spent 15 years in France so it was a significant decision. It was a treat to work side by side with him and look at ways that we could further the work and take it to the next level.

I've now been involved in the work for over 30 years one way or another. I have been actively involved in more recent years focusing on how we can further apply Whole Brain Thinking to critical business applications and priorities.

Q| Can you give us an overview of Whole Brain Thinking concept and its main benefits for workplace learning?

Thinking is something we often take for granted - like our brain. In today's environment, thinking has become a critical lever in organizational success. If we don't understand how it is we're thinking and if we're not able to align that understanding to get better results - we, and the organizations we work for, are at a huge disadvantage.

The Whole Brain Thinking model is a powerful framework around which you can describe how you think and how you learn which you can then apply to how effective we are in our day-to-day business lives.

It is designed to give you a very easy way to describe how we think and align that understanding with how we interact with our processes, our learning designs, our communication, and with our products; it gives us a language around which to organize our thinking. At a basic level you need to understand how you think, then you need to begin to comprehend how other people think, then how we are interacting, so that we can gain the speed that I think is essential to gaining competitive advantage.

The main benefit for workplace learning and development, I believe, is the opportunity to significantly accelerate and improve competitive advantage for the companies and organizations we serve. If we are not able to effectively design and deliver learning that is aligned with client needs and different modalities, we are going to fall short of having the full impact of all we can deliver as learning professionals. So often, learning designs reflect the mindset of the designers, not the learners.

In addition, one of the critical competencies for leaders in 21st century is going to be the ability to think in an agile way. Thinking agility, which is something that you can improve by understanding how you think and how others think, is going to be an essential, critical skill for leaders of the future so they can stay ahead and be as adaptive as possible.

At the end of the day, we need a different kind of ROI, which I define as "Return on Intelligence." We need the classic ROI, or Return on Investment, but we also need "Return on Implementation," "Return on Interaction," and "Return on Innovation" or ideas. Without having the ability to do that we are not really leveraging our core assets: the brainpower and thinking we have inside of organizations. This requires a Whole Brain approach. You can be in any business you like, but running a successful organization in today's environment requires Whole Brain Thinking.

Q| What do you think keeps organizations from being more creative and innovative?

A big barrier to making creative thinking core to a culture is the mindset we may have about whether it should be part of our day-to-day business and culture versus being relegated to R&D, product development or marketing as it has often been in the past.


Over the years I have seen the focus on creativity and innovation come and go, depending on what's going on with the economy. We have seen a resurgence in recent months of interest in building creative thinking and innovation into organizations. One of the reasons we're seeing this renewed focus is that innovative and creative thinking is now a requirement to stay competitive in today's rapid rate of change. We are seeing a requirement to be more creative and strategic on demand and the ability to "think around corners" as I call it - strategic thinking - as new competencies popping up in the leadership development programs our clients are developing. Just naming the competencies does not necessarily ensure success.

Another big challenge to creative thinking is the "curse of knowledge." What we know from brain research is that we are naturally pattern-seeking devices. Once we learn something, that creates a pattern in our thinking; our brain is naturally looking for that pattern as we interact with the world which ultimately blinds us in our ability to see and think in new ways beyond our established patterns. The solution is to cross train our brains and introduce different processes and tools to break out of that natural pattern-seeking mode.

Companies that are most successful at building a culture of creative thinking have redefined and expanded who is engaged in the creative process. I believe everyone can and should participate in the process, and since it is a Whole Brain process, different thinking is required at different stages along the way.

Our research has shown that Whole Brain teams are significantly more creative than "homogeneous" teams, leveraging differences. Understanding the value of those differences and how to make the process work are, of course, key. Being different also creates discomfort. When you're exposed to Whole Brain Thinking you begin to recognize that difference is natural and normal, and that when you bring differences together you get new thinking.

A third barrier is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of change. Creativity is a great way to better embrace and deal with change as change is an inherent part of the creative process. Creative thinking means taking risks and trying out lots of different kinds of approaches. In essence, most organizations need to change the way they look at risk taking, creating safe zones that allow people to take risks in ways that don't feel fatal for them. The concept of "fail fast, fail smart" is one of Google's mottos-I would add, "fail cheap!"

Q| Any recent or new projects you like to tell us about?

I'm working on a book with the working title the "The Era of And." I am hearing a new kind of pain from our clients about how the way the world is working today and the mental demands that is putting on leaders of organizations. We are no longer in a world where we have the luxury of our old thinking habits: being able to focus solely on a given arena. We need to be inherently flexible. In my interviews, I hear statements such as "I need my managers to be both tactical and strategic. I need bottom-line accountability and transformational leadership." You are hearing this constant push of "and," different from the world of "or." The book will not only explain how and why our "heads hurt," but more specifically, how leaders can artfully navigate these waters so that they are developing the mental dexterity and thinking agility to remain competitive.

The book will be published early next year. I am still interviewing and would love to hear any examples fromT+D readers' leadership challenges and how they are preparing leaders to address them.

Q| What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I have a little plaque on my desk that is a quote attributed to Michelangelo: "I'm still learning." I feel blessed to be doing work that allows me to be in this world of learning. Travel, especially global travel and discovering new parts of the world, is really fun, so I try to leverage our global presence to continue to discover new places. My eldest son is getting married in Thailand next year - a trip I am really looking forward to. Travel also gives me great new ideas for another passion - cooking. Although being home in the mountains of North Carolina is not so bad: It allows me to enjoy our small lake--boating, swimming, kayaking or catching a Zumba class at the gym.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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