Putting Your Company's Whole Brain to Work

To achieve creative abrasiongetting people with different thought and work styles to collaborateyou have to make the different approaches rub together in productive ways

The Idea in Brief

Successful innovation relies on people—and people have different cognitive approaches for assimilating data and solving problems:

• So-called "left-brain" thinkers tend to approach a problem in a logical, analytical way. "Right-brain" thinkers rely more on nonlinear, intuitive approaches.

• Some people prefer to work together to solve a problem; others like to gather and process information by themselves.

• Abstract thinkers need to learn about something before they experience it; for experiential people, it's just the opposite.

Cognitive differences are often subtle; people don't naturally appreciate their significance. Managers who dislike conflict or who value only their own approach often fall victim to the comfortable clone syndrome, surrounding themselves with people who think alike and who share similar interests and training. Even managers who value intellectual diversity may not realize how difficult it can be for people with different styles to understand or respect each other. But to achieve creative abrasion, you have to make the different approaches rub together in productive ways.

The Idea in Practice

To get creative abrasion, start by compiling a cognitive profile of your team. Engage a trained professional to administer one of several readily available diagnostic tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

1. Do your own profile first. Become familiar with the ways in which your preferences shape your leadership and patterns of communication. If you're not paying attention, your own style can stifle the very creativity you're looking to foster among team members.

2. Create "whole-brained" teams. Once you understand your own thinking styles and those of the other team members, identify the styles that are missing so you'll know what to focus on when hiring opportunities arise. This results in a team with a wider variety of problem-solving approaches. At Nissan Design, Jerry Hirschberg hires designers in pairs—a free-form thinker alongside someone with a more analytical approach—to ensure intellectual diversity. If you don't have the luxury of hiring new people, look elsewhere in the company for the critical thinking styles your group lacks.

3. Employ strategies that exploit the team's full spectrum of approaches. At Xerox PARC, anthropologists work alongside computer scientists to create cyberspace meeting rooms that have a welcoming, human touch in addition to being technologically sophisticated.

4. Actively manage the creative process. Abrasion is not creative unless managers make it so.

• Take time at the outset to acknowledge team members' differences.

• Before problems surface, devise clear, simple guidelines for working together. For example, one group decided to handle conflict by stating that anyone could disagree with anyone else about anything, but no one could disagree without saying the reason.

• Keep the project's goal in front of the group at all times.

• When scheduling a project, create time for both divergent thinking (uncovering imaginative alternatives) and convergent thinking (focusing in on one option and then implementing it).

• Don't treat team members the way you want to be treated—tailor your communications to the receiver.

• Depersonalize conflict when it does arise. Acknowledge that other approaches are not wrongheaded, just different.