On the Starboard Tack: Are You a Right-Thinking Business Mind, or Will You Be Left Far Behind by Evolution? David Allen Contrasts the Old and New Management Styles in Terms of How They Use the Two Sides of the Brain

By Allen, David | Financial Management (UK), May 2004 | Go to article overview

On the Starboard Tack: Are You a Right-Thinking Business Mind, or Will You Be Left Far Behind by Evolution? David Allen Contrasts the Old and New Management Styles in Terms of How They Use the Two Sides of the Brain


Allen, David, Financial Management (UK)


As its inhabitants well know, the world of business is characterised by a competitive struggle for existence. Only those best suited to the prevailing environment can be confident of survival.

It's also widely appreciated that the current environment is a volatile one, for which the old "command and compliance" approach to management is not a good fit. Its adherents are almost invariably shrinking (or, as they would prefer to put it, downsizing) their businesses in order to maximise shareholder value. Economic growth is concentrated in those businesses to which a "trust and commitment" approach comes naturally.

As with evolution generally, it's hard to find entities that are moving from one state to another. On the sin-face, it looks like a simple ease of inertia: most organisations are full of people who liked them as they were and so are predisposed to resist the very changes that are needed to respond to the changing environment. On the basis of a large number of observations, however, I have reached a tentative conclusion that there is a deeper explanation: namely, that the old and new models relate to the left and right sides of the brain respectively. People whose experience has been predominantly in tasks that use the left side of the brain (eg, accounting) are uncomfortable with situations that call for the right side to be used (eg, financial management).

Frederick Taylor's scientific management model was a reductionist one that was concerned with breaking things down. Creating the foundation for years of work study, for example, Taylor advocated separating tasks into their smallest possible elements, which could then be performed repetitively by unskilled labourers. His motive was to avoid having to employ skilled people who, he suspected, were too keen on keeping their knowledge to themselves.

On a broader front, presuming that the next day would be very much like the previous one, managers would analyse the past, confident that it would improve their chances of successfully managing tomorrow. Analysis is an typical left-brain activity, and it thrives on repetition, experience and knowledge. But, if the safest assumption is that tomorrow will be different, managers need to synthesise their judgments about possible futures. Synthesis is about building things up rather than breaking them down. It calls for the skills associated with the right side of the brain, which thrives on novelty, innovation and imagination.

The left side of the brain seeks certainty and single-point precision, but the right side is comfortable with uncertainty and tolerances. The left side literally cannot imagine what the right side does. Again, accountancy provides a good example: some members of the profession are so preoccupied with accounting that they mistakenly think it's financial management. …

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On the Starboard Tack: Are You a Right-Thinking Business Mind, or Will You Be Left Far Behind by Evolution? David Allen Contrasts the Old and New Management Styles in Terms of How They Use the Two Sides of the Brain
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