True Mind Consulting

February 2, 2023

I was asked to take on management of a program that had been running for a couple of years and was suffering from a lack of direction. People were working hard but had no clear idea of what they were trying to achieve.

Initially I had to absorb a lot of information — the program was centred on developing and selling products in an area of which I had little knowledge. After getting up to speed, I had an intuitive idea of organising the work into three particular buckets or categories. This was very much a visual intuition — I saw an image of the work laid out on a page, without words. Initially I just saw the buckets and had an idea of what they represented, but it took me a while to settle on the exact words for them. Without giving away sensitive information, I can tell you that one bucket related to generating ideas about what we should be doing over the next few years, one was about turning existing ideas into concrete things that could be sold and one was about selling them.

I shared the idea, found that it resonated with the team, and proceeded to reorganise the program. The objectives, work breakdown structure, reporting and governance are now all aligned with this idea. The people doing the work and the people reading the reports are a lot happier. That doesn’t mean I found some kind of ultimate truth — it was just a particular model for looking at the work — but some models are demonstrably more useful than others, and this one seemed to be more useful than what the team had been using before.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about how this happened. The idea I had wasn’t based on any of the formal training I’ve done, or on custom and practice at the company running the program. Nor did it arise directly out of any of the reams of information about products and the history of the program that I had to absorb. At the same time, it wasn’t completely removed from all that information either, since it was a way of organising the program that took account of the specifics and seemed like the best way to do them justice.

Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, argues that our brains have two distinct ways of engaging with the world, which are embodied in the structure of their two hemispheres. We have a broad, open way of attending to things which is attuned to the new and unknown, and is holistic, intuitive and at home with ambiguity; and a narrow, focused way of looking at things which concerns itself with the known, and is acquisitive, reductive, task-focused and intolerant of ambiguity. Both are necessary for survival. The former is associated with the right hemisphere and the latter with the left. Any true insight comes from the right hemisphere’s perception of something beyond what we already know — but it is then passed to the left hemisphere which conceptualises and verbalises it, and shares it back with the right to expand the boundaries of our knowledge, in turn allowing further insights from outside these expanded boundaries.

I believe my insight was the result of not rushing to hasty conclusions — which would have been a case of the left hemisphere imposing what it already knew and was comfortable with — and allowing a new picture to emerge through the openness characteristic of the right hemisphere. I use the word “picture” deliberately as it was a visual intuition that I was only later able to express in words. Indeed, the first few times I spoke to people about it, I found myself sounding clumsy and unclear despite having such a clear image in my mind. It can take the left hemisphere, which controls speech, time to catch up with what the right already knows non-verbally. That doesn’t mean that putting the idea into words has no value — it certainly does as it codifies the intuition for reuse in future situations. However, any knowledge thus codified risks becoming stale if we take it to be the truth. We may have a favourite meal, but we still need to cook it freshly each time we want to eat it rather than try to eat last week’s meal that may have gone bad by now.

McGilchrist’s contention is that our world is out of kilter because we have allowed the mechanical, codifying and instrumentalising left hemisphere to usurp its natural master, the right hemisphere, which sees the bigger picture but lacks the words to describe it. In a microcosm of this, I’ve seen many situations where intelligent and diligent people imprison themselves within narratives, frameworks, rules and procedures that lose sight of — well, the bigger picture. One of the first things I always ask in a new engagement is, “What are we trying to do here?” or “What is this really all about?” People often know it at some level but haven’t allowed themselves to say it. Sometimes just allowing ourselves the time to pause and the space for a picture to emerge can make all the difference.

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