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Professional Corner

Tapping Employee Brain Power
to Work Smarter

When the tailor Motel from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof finally got his sewing machine, he exclaimed: "From now on my clothes will be perfect, made by a machine!"

This idea of perfection – everything exactly the same, standardized, predictable, and uniform – is a vestige of the Industrial Revolution. And it is strangling business potential today.

Looking at creativity in a new way has become a central challenge in the business world. It seems that the traditional paradigm of business simply doesn’t allow it to embrace creativity because its structure reflects those outdated concepts of the Industrial Revolution. In order to become truly creative, business will have to update its very structure.

Outdated philosophies have to go

During the Industrial Revolution, people were fascinated by machines and the science of the day. The universe, society, and the human body were thought to be mechanical devices – deterministic and predictable. The structure of society in that era was strictly hierarchical, ruled by time, discipline, logic and productivity. Darwin’s "survival of the fittest" concept gave rise to "claw your way to the top" philosophy of business survival. The human brain was considered essentially passive and reactive. Its activity was described by words such as power, energy, drive and discharge. It was also thought to be organized hierarchically, with one central control system that told the other parts what to do.

All these concepts combined to create the pyramid-like business structure, which is supposed to work "like a well-oiled machine," with "vertical chains" of command and top-down communication lines.

It’s time to update our beliefs

We live in a very different world now that did the Industrial Revolutionists. Post-Einsteinian science tells us that the Universe is ruled by possibilities, not certainties. Biology claims that ecosystems thrive with cooperation far more than by competition. And neurology has advanced the belief that the brain is at all like a machine – "at least not like a machine that anyone has every encountered," says prominent neurologist Richard Restak.

In fact, it seems the brain does not resemble a computer, even though it is always compared to one. Rather, it resembles the Internet. Instead of one "command center", the brain is now thought to process in a modular fashion. One task can be handled by different autonomous parts of the brain, each processing a different aspect. By maintaining communication across the various parts and overlapping some functions, the brain then comes out with the finished product by synchronizing its output in time. Words now being used to describe brain functions are code, message, information, communication, and network.

Another interesting contribution from the field of neurology is that play is now considered in brain development. In laboratory experiments, animals that lived in an "enriched environment" (characterized by frequent changes of toys and interactions with other animals), grew bigger brains. But that kind of growth does not happen in highly competitive environments, which science has demonstrated to be ‘anti-brain’. Indeed, say the experts, such environments tend to crush creativity. A struggle for survival tends to accelerate rigidity, while play leads to innovation, more flexible behavior – and a more versatile and interesting species.

How to meet the challenge

In order to meet contemporary challenges more effectively, it makes sense for business to tap into these discoveries. Thus, the traditional, highly structured, organization needs to give way to a more flexible, communication-based and interconnected network.

Fortunately, a trend in that direction has already started. Many companies hire creativity consultants or theater groups to help develop the atmosphere of play. Seminars and books now urge companies and business leaders to transform business structure, relationships, and communication lines.

There are companies that have already been wildly successful in this new, less centralized model. One better-known example is Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, where employee participation is expected, fun is a way of life, and the CEO can only earn seven times more than the lowest paid worker. Herb Kelleher, head of Southwest Airlines, has been known to dress as a leprechaun to greet his passengers! And Boardroom Reports has created Ipower, a program of continuous feedback from employees, suppliers, and clients.

Of course, changing the structure of internal business operations is a decision that requires a high level of thought, energy, and cooperation from the entire organization. The good news is that applying the most up-to-date concepts from science and neurology can strengthen the bottom line by allowing individuals to thrive in a brain-friendly environment.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013