Friday, April 17, 2009

A Whole New Mind: A personal reading

I have just finished reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. An interesting book, with loads of resources and activity pointers, which makes the case for the dominance of 'creative' types in the world of business. Indeed, we always knew that, but this book brings several things - a case for right brain thinking [or R-directed thinking as the author calls it], six dimensions of R-directed activities and several resources to improve all these dimensions - together.

The argument is pretty straightforward. The author labels our age 'conceptual age, and differentiates it from the information age, which we just lived through. So, he sees modern history moving from industrial age [starting early nineteenth century and culminating in the great expansion of industrial capacity by the middle of the twentieth] to information age [starting with the advent of computers and the Internet and reaching its zenith in the first decade of the new millennium, when computers and networks became all encompassing and powerful, at least in the western societies], and eventually on to the conceptual age, when the western societies will finally escape the scarcity trap and will thrive on innovation and new possibilities.

Time is not exactly right to talk about this new era of abundance, but it is not difficult to see what the author means. Despite the persistence of poverty even in the industrial societies, the era of abundance is indeed here [though a fragile climate can spoil the party]. The manufacturing is shifting to Asia and all tasks that can be automated are being automated, leaving out the population in these countries with the task of creation and innovation. The author argues that our age is shaped by abundance, Asia and automation, and hence the creative types will now take the lead.

I must say that this is a chicken-and-egg argument and I have seen the other side of the argument before. Some authors argued that as life becomes easier in Western societies, which is has become of late, more and more people will pursue creative disciplines at schools. They cited Japan as an example, where most people used to study science and technology in the 1970s, but as the country got richer, design and music enrollments picked up significantly.

However, whichever way one looks at it, it is indeed true that in Western societies today, creative, R-directed activities are at a premium, and hence, R-directed careers are no longer frowned upon as they used to be in the past. On a personal note, I remembered having the aspiration of being an author and insisting on studying literature in college; only to be told that there was no career prospect there and I must settle for a middle of road career of an economist or a banker, if I am not good enough to make an engineer. Indeed, it was correct then, in the mid-80s India, when the information age was dawning and only L-directed careers had any prospect. However, things are very different in an advanced economy like Britain or America today, and suddenly, the R-directed careers look more secured and exciting.

The author then explores six dimensions of R-directed activities, namely design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. The book is structured with individual essays on these six areas and then a portfolio of resources for each of these aspects. I shall touch upon each of the areas briefly here.

Design - This is already happening - whereas the manufacturing happens to be outsourced, design careers flourish in the Western economies. Product design is big, as well as various other areas like software design, fashion design, interior design and even service and work flow design. The design value-add is today one of the most important value components in an offering. Besides, in a world where reverse engineering is child's play, design is indeed a continuous process. We learn about design-based high schools in America, which is an interesting innovation in education, and an exciting idea which can be pursued in countries like India very successfully.

Story - As we suffer from information overload, indeed the communicative value of stories is at an all time high, and so, those who can tell them are in demand. The author investigates the role of stories in modern life context. Story again is an essential component of the value add, and close to a trillion dollar business in America [estimated in the context of its value in advertising and selling products]. Telling and understanding stories obviously require a high level of right brain involvement. Again, in the age of social networking, it is easy to see the value of stories in business context, and the book provides valuable resources to enhance the story-telling capacity of business executives.

Symphony - Right brain, as research shows, plays a part in pattern recognition and other integrative activities, where elements are seen and perceived together as a whole [as opposed to the left brain analysis, where the whole is broken down in logical elements]. This is indeed the key to the 'vision' thing, where one needs to be able to see beyond the obvious and the literal, and imagine, an exercise that requires integration, usage of metaphors and connecting up. The author uses the word 'symphony' in the context of brings things together, in that sense, as an opposite of the word 'analysis', and provides a number of resources and activity pointers to improve the 'symphonistic' (sorry!) thinking.

Empathy - This is the people thing, the ability to be in someone else's shoes and feel for that particular situation. This is indeed not just an HR trick, but a critical skill for marketers and for building brand loyalties through excellent customer service. A number of very interesting resources are provided here, including great tips for understanding facial expressions and developing a more caring approach. In real life, we know this is increasingly important, and one would die for Nordstrom's ability to imbibe its employees with supreme sensitivity to its customers. I was also reading about the American burger chain, In-and-Out Burger, which has created its own unique approach to quality and customer connection and clocks more per store sales than its competitors, McDonald's or Burger King. It seemed that their strategy was primarily based on a great sense of empathy for its employees, including the part time ones. It is indeed going to be a key skill where there is both a war for talent and for eye balls, in this age of groundswell, where love and hate of employees and customers can make or break a brand.

Play - We have heard these stories about playfulness in business from Silicon Valley, and how fun and work are getting mixed. The author talks about the value of laughter and the philosophy of laughter clubs ['from conditional laugh of an adult to the unconditional laugh of a child'] and extols the value of humour at the workplace. The resources are extensive yet again, and one is able to see how critical is the sense of play [how far have we come from Henry Ford's laughless workplace?] in modern business.

Meaning - The author talks about the importance of the search of meaning in this age of abundance. He quotes Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist who started the logotherapy movement and wrote the seminal books, Man's Search for Meaning, while living in a concentration camp and watching all the other members of his family die. While he points this out as an essential result of the age of abundance, it should be pointed out that this is happening all over the world. Next on my own reading list is indeed John Micklaithwaite's God is Back, which is indeed in the news all over the world. This is the next stage of what the businesses should offer its customers, and indeed all stakeholders, not just great price and quality [which is now taken for granted], and great design [which is becoming a differentiator], but also a sense of meaning [fair trade, green credentials, British chicken, carbon offsetting on airfares etc] in their products and services.

In summary, the author makes the case for a whole minded approach to solve today's problems. He is saying that the mechanistic, logical ways of looking at things is no longer enough; it needs the creative, synergistic, Right Brain approach too. [This is why it is a 'whole mind' approach, the left still plays a role]. If you think you always knew that, I must point out my own experience of being told not to pursue a creative career, and also the fact that we still continue to believe that the touchy-feely things like poetry and art have no place in the 'hard' world of business. In fact, only recently, I was told that I need to learn the mechanistic, analytical ways of conducting business because that is the 'way business is done'. The book makes the point - while we don't say goodbye to logic, in this age, one needs to have a bit more than that to be successful.

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