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Unlocking Creative Potential – A Neuroscience Approach

Sandy Cormack, a personal and organizational consultant, continues with his installments of Unlocking Creative Potential. He uses a neuroscience-based approach to team building, leadership development, creativity and innovation, change management, and business strategy development.

As my regular readers know, I am a big fan of looking at various ways learning takes place, when and how training can be made most effective, and how we can unleash the best in all of us and those we train. Take a look again at Unlocking Creative Potential, this time from a group perspective.

Here’s Sandy Cormack with Part III:

Unlocking Creative Potential, Part III

by Sandy Cormack

In the final installment we extend the discussion of individual creativity and explore the neuroscience of team creativity. Please refer to the two previous articles for basic left brain-right brain information and the model for whole brain creativity.

Consider a team with a wide variety of brain preferences:

Between them, the team members share a “complete brain.” Each thinking preference is represented in at least one brain. Some have a preference for two attributes, some for three.

But without proper facilitation and training, they probably won’t be able to leverage their collective creativity. They won’t function as a complete brain.

This is mainly due to the fact that they likely don’t understand one another’s brains. Lacking this, they don’t understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Looking across the team, Fred has a weakness in an area that’s a strength for Peter (structural). Janet has a strength in an area that’s a weakness for Mary (social).

Without team training, this group will likely regard these differences in a negative fashion. I see your weakness in structural thinking as a liability to the team instead of your conceptual thinking strength as a team asset. So we end up wasting energy on the problem that lies between us, rather than focusing it on the problem at hand. And that means we don’t get the best solutions.

Team training is a natural progression from individual training. By participating in a team brain training workshop the individual first acquires self insight – a complete understanding of their brain preferences. From this they can move to self management – learning what they can do with this new understanding, acquiring new skills.

The next step in the progression is team awareness: what does my group’s ‘collective brain’ look like? The final step is team development: how can we exploit our brain diversity? This four-step process is a model for general organizational development.

Here is how we get a team to understand one another’s brains. This is an excerpt from a team profile – i.e. ‘the collective brain’ of a group of about 30 people:

Taken as a whole, this group is well-balanced and displays a preference in all four attributes. But looking at the group in another way reveals its true mental diversity:

This excerpt from a ‘dot graph’ depicts not only the group ‘averages’ in all four thinking attributes, but also the range across the group for each attribute. Each dot represents an individual’s percentile score in a particular attribute. The scores span the entire percentile spectrum. This is a dramatic depiction of the group’s mental diversity.

It’s important that a team experiences this revelation collectively. When depicted in this fashion the team experiences their ‘collective brain’ for the first time and gains immediate understanding of their innate strengths – strengths they never knew they had. I now see your strength in conceptual thinking as a team asset, and will consider you an internal consultant in that area.

Now that the team has moved through the four-step process they can exploit their collective creativity in a number of ways. Recall the four phase creative problem solving process from the first article:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Ideation
  3. Solution selection
  4. Implementation

Team members may naturally find themselves gravitating towards one of the four phases. Analytical thinkers may be attracted to problem definition or solution selection. Conceptual thinkers may be attracted to ideation.

But it’s important for all team members to learn how their preferences contribute to each phase.

  • In problem definition, analytical thinkers research the problem and collect data to create a clear picture of the current situation. Structural thinkers consider processes and procedures as the likely source of the problem. Social thinkers define the problem after discussing it with others and gaining multiple perspectives. Conceptual thinkers create a clear vision for the future and contrast it with the current situation.
  • In ideation, analytical thinkers take a systems approach and integrate the best aspects of multiple ideas. Structural thinkers draw upon what has worked well in the past and seek to improve. Social thinkers seek to understand best practices external to the organization. Conceptual thinkers intuitively proliferate transformational ideas.
  • In solution selection, analytical thinkers use a cost-benefits approach, seeking to understand the pros and cons of each idea before selecting the best. Structural thinkers may tend to ‘short circuit’ this step and move immediately from ideation to implementation. Social thinkers consider the impact of the solutions upon people. Conceptual thinkers gravitate to the more strategic solutions that break structure.
  • In implementation, analytical thinkers focus on performance measures so they can validate the solution. Structural thinkers take a leadership role and manage the process. Social thinkers ‘grease the skids’ by finding out how to mitigate the organizational impacts of the solution. Conceptual thinkers might not even get involved.

By leveraging each thinking preference in each phase, the odds of finding the ‘correct’ solution increases dramatically. The group can intelligently determine the ‘right’ amount of change the organization can withstand. It can decide whether the solution should be more strategic or more tactical. It can better obtain the internal support needed to achieve success.

And just by going through the process, the team members will develop skills in their areas of weakness as they learn from those for whom those areas are strengths. Conceptual thinkers will learn to appreciate the impact of their blue sky ideas on the people in the organization. Structural thinkers will learn the value of ‘slowing down’ to consider a wide range of alternatives. Social thinkers will learn the value of a cost-benefits approach. Analytical thinkers will learn to ask ‘what do you think about this’ when defining the problem.

As we conclude this three part series I want to summarize the key takeaways:

  1. Everyone is creative, but in different ways
  2. When we minimize the problems that lie between us, we can begin to leverage our mental diversity and collective creativity
  3. Mutual understanding is the key to team development
  4. We are smarter and more creative collectively than we are individually

The foundation to all of this is the left brain right brain test. Taking it is the first step in unlocking your organization’s vast creative potential.

My thanks to Sandy Cormack as my guest expert blogger for providing his view for “unlocking your organization’s vast creative potential.” It certainly deserves consideration and further study. As we all know, I am about generating ideas from wherever they come–so keep them coming. I’m always available through this site through your comments and my own website, where I talk about a few other things besides training and development. In this case, I leave it to you to make the connections. The field of creativity and how we go about unleashing it in individuals and groups is a vital part of our profession.

Happy Training. By the way, you’ll all understand we have to make a living so I need to mention yet another approach to training and development. It begins–well, where it begins–with early man and how he learned to survive. My new ebook, The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development, takes a more basic look at our profession, along with a few related areas and looks at what we do (or don’t do) from various perspectives, sometimes the most basic: the trainee, the employer, the trainer or training manager.

From the publisher of the Free Management Library, Carter McNamara: “I have read each of Jack’s chapters in the ‘Cave Man’ book, and each provides a no-nonsense, set of practical tips to do many of the most important aspects of training. In this day and age when so many books dwell on the theoretical and the obvious, Jack’s book is a breath of fresh air. It should be in every trainer’s toolkit.”

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Mark Hammer

Robert’s right, I’m afraid. There may be some provocative and stimulating ideas somewhere in there (e.g., pondering the emergent properties of a group as a function of complementary strengths), but applying the term “neuroscience” to it is a bit of an insult to those who work in the neurosciences.

People are free to use whatever metaphors they want, I suppose, but I spent a decade doing research on the neurobiology of memory, learning, and attention, electrophysiological recordings, rat neurosurgery, brain lesions, injecting hormones, slicing up brains, the whole nine yards. So when folks start bandying about research concepts as a persuasive rhetorical device for the underinformed, like some late night Kevin Trudeau sales pitch, I get cranky. EVERYTHING in the article can be discussed fully without making any appeal whatsoever to brain concepts.

Finally, Robert’s frustration with popular understanding of the right/left brain thing is well-justified. If people want to talk about individuals thinking in a narrow way, and applying limited strategies, great. But it has precious little to do with hemispheric specialization. Honestly, if our brains worked the way so many seem to think they do, we would have been rendered extinct by superior species like raccoons long ago.

There, now excuse me whilst I try and locate the “right” side of the bed. 🙂

Jack Shaw

Thanks everyone for your comments. By all means, keep them coming–good or bad. We have different views and I welcome those views from guest bloggers so all can be heard. I don’t believe in one way of doing anything. “We do what works,” and this particular group focuses on this as a way to bring about understanding and change in individuals and groups. I don’t edit the writing, but I am responsible for bringing in the content. In this case as in most I remain neutral for now.

I am doing a blog on how, “I Can’t Train or Teach You Anything!” which basically takes the approach that learning is self-motivated. A trainer’s job then is to motivate someone to see the need to learn from training, and when they do it–much success to them.

In these days of branding, everyone tries to find the most marketable niche, when they should be finding out more who they are these days and how they can fit into the picture. Since I believe my focus is to shed light on aspects of how we think about training and development today. I do not promote obviously, and will not allow an article that is blatant self-promotion. It is always the hidden agenda, and there is always the perception that its mere presence within my blog is a concurrence. I remain neutral unless some urge causes me to vehemently oppose at the moment, but I’d lose a lot guest bloggers who I respect for their courage and conviction of ideas even if I disagree. It is the nature of my choice to allow a broad base of ideas–in fact, I encourage them.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

How did you come up with the four different types of thinkers? What is the research behind Emergenetics? This looks very similar to Myers Briggs. How is it different?

Robert Bacal points out some telling objections to your theory and I think you would be more persuasive if you would point out the research that you base your conclusions on.

Mark Hammer

Before we get a collective 15-yard penalty for piling on or unnecessary roughness, keep in mind this is not Jack’s work, but someone else’s that he posted to spark thought and interest. I’m no more enamored of some of the concepts articulated than you are, but it’s not really Jack’s obligation to defend it.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I meant no offense and was hoping that Jack could pass along my questions to the guest blogger. I don’t see the harm in asking for research to back up claims that are advertised to help teams work better.

I fully agree with Robert’s last set of remarks. I also have been dismayed at the poor research in the training field and think that it is incumbent upon concerned research-based trainers to self-police the field since neither ASTD nor other professional organizations want to take that responsibility. It may sound presumptuous but I would rather risk that than being lumped in with less-informed and less-rigorous trainers out there.

Sandy Cormack

Hello everyone,

I understand the disagreement here, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. I think the key to understanding my articles is that I use the term ‘metaphor’ in the first installment to set the stage – the left brain-right brain model is a metaphor for how the brain works. The model I deal with builds off the work of Sperry and Hermann.

The second thing I’d like to address is that I in no means meant to imply that people don’t use their whole brains. They certainly do. But the model and the questionnaire that supports it assume that people have different preferences. Preferences are revealed by the way you answer the questionnaire. I know people disagree in this area. But I have seen these cognitive differences expressed so many times in group activities – even defining common terms like ‘trust’ and ‘leadership’ varies according to thinking preference.

In this, the questionnaire is no different than any other psychometric instrument – it has validity data etc. I can provide that upon request. I have experienced workshops that use other psychometric instruments as well – KAI, MBTI – both of which I am also certified to administer. Each has advantages but I prefer Emergenetics’s whole brain approach.

And for those more interested in the research behind the metaphor, I recommend the “Emergenetics” book by Geil Browning, which goes into the model in greater depth and includes the statistical data. My articles aren’t meant to be scholarly – they are related to training creativity, which is an area of interest to Jack.

Sandy Cormack

Incidentally – I’m at the Sugar Bowl and don’t have my trusty copy of Emergenetics handy, but since Geil Browning is indeed a neuroscientist, I thought you might want to read her recent article in Inc. Magazine and see if it resonates any better due to her more scholarly.

Jack Shaw


Thanks for your comments. I haven’t been holding off on my answer; I’ve actually been off teaching this morning something far less stimulating. At any rate, I appreciate the responses.

Robert, I understand your approach to blogging, but I have a different one. Most of what I blog I write myself. When I find an article that I take exception to, I do approach it like you do, but I use a softer approach I think.

When I have a guest blogger (that’s different), what I think doesn’t matter while they have the floor. That is what I mean by neutral. I don’t take issue at that time. I might at a later time if it seems of interest and I often make it a different blog and I will still refer others to the original blog to be fair. I try to make sure it is not a promotion as much as a discussion of a different method or idea. One of my masters degrees is in Social Psychology arena with a minor in Comparative Psychology so I have some familiarity with the subject but not the most recent research either. Nor am I looking to delve that deep in a blog. I am hopeful and appreciative when that research is mentioned in the guest blog via link, but that isn’t always the case. I will ask the question sometimes via comment on the original blog piece.

As to comments made about the amount of junk and untrue claims out there in the training world, I try to give my points of view when I can in such a way as to make people think and come to some conclusions themselves. It is indeed why I have chosen to do the blog in the first place. This whole notion of branding has people grabbing one or two well-marketed ideas that resound with the public and making it their life’s work. I am more the generalist.

I also agree that the concepts sound familiar as in other assessment tools we use. My point by allowing the diversity is to show there are different ways of expressing the same ideas, and I think people respond to a different kind of presentation. Ethically, do I think it is a good idea to pass something off as scientific without all the research present to back it up? No, but I hope that research is valid and is made available upon request.

Doing what works? If it works, where is the problem? Because “what works” is not grounded in our belief system? I don’t usually run into that problem. Since I am a generalist, I tend to find out what the company needs are and look for ways that they can be met appropriately. I have no single product to sell but my character and ability fit a method to solve a training problem. I don’t just look at training but communication, leadership and human resource functions.

I like to think when I write some times I give people something to think about, which goes along with my philosophy of not knowing everything and willing to listen. I think I have a few good ones out them. Some are better than others, I admit. Maybe I’m more writer than analyst. This is only one of the kinds of blogs I write. I also write dramatic criticism and theatre commentary.

Jack Shaw

Boy, do I feel misunderstood. My own problem I suppose, but it’s hard to communicate character even though I blog about trainer character and responsibility. I even blog on that the the trainer’s character is the only “character” he or she can really control. I agree with you a hundred percent that we, as trainers, as speakers, whatever we are “selling” anyone have a responsibility to recommend to clients should be fact-based, tested and claims substantiated. There should be evidence that the product is valid, although you know as well as me some people can and will sell anything. There are ridiculous methods that work, but I will associate my name with sound recommendations always–ones I believe have merit.

I’m the same guy who wouldn’t take a commercial job for CBN because I would have been “acting” as a broadcaster and announcing that network news was tainted because was commercial enterprise. Having worked in TV news I knew the commercial functions and those of news programming never touched. It was a ridiculous assertion, and it seemed I would be blatantly promoting a biased news enterprise of a different kind. Nothing against those who believe CBN is a credible reporter of news; I suppose it works for people who believe faith-based reporting gives the truest picture. But I felt it was wrong for me. The pay was good and there was a opportunity to expand that role. Even as an actor, it just wasn’t worth it to associate my name with something I didn’t believe in or agree with.

If anything, I am a conservative trainer with a creative bent, but as a blogger who works on a site called the Free Management Library I am not the vetter of all training products or methods out there. I will agree I have a responsibility to comment on the world of training and development. I don’t know it all despite my advanced years. I hope my gift is saying some things that need to get said and maintain a following, and gain readers who think I am worth reading. If I am harsh and purport to be the expert on everything training, I come off arrogant. If I am too easy, I lose credibility.

Unlike some who have associated themselves with various products and specific techniques over the years that helped establish their brand, their identity in the market, I have not. I have skills and perceptions (probably not unique in the field, but I want that to be what I’m known for), but it’s what I have to sell. Most of what I am is about character. If I were hungry, I could have sold out a long time ago. You probably can’t tell, but I have been far less involved in LinkedIn for the very same reasons you are.

Sandy had something to say. While his article may have earmarks of marketing, it wasn’t in the face of most people. I expect people to take what they see and look into it more if they are interested. I also agree this is a forum to take exception. I would hate for someone to take a single article on the internet and jump on it without doing more research. It’s a blog on the Internet. I don’t edit the pieces that come in unless there is an obvious distracting grammatical error and my intervention will only improve sentence structure without changing meaning. The articles do have to have some substance. Maybe I missed on this one in the eyes of some. I apologize if my decision to put it on my blog offended anyone, but in my mind I merely presented someone else’s view. I won’t apologize for the way I choose to wage the fight against shady training practices or bad ideas good trainers may have.

You might say, “it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.” Or, not.