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The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research


Business leaders are in charge. They are in charge of people, of budgets, of production lines. Most leaders also believe that they are in charge of their greatest resource—their own brain. But how true is that? The more we understand about how the brain works, the clearer it becomes that often our brain kicks in before we do. For example, the more expert we become, the less we "think." Our brain can con us into being sure that we’re right—even when we’re wrong. And without consulting us, our brain decides who to ...
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Business leaders are in charge. They are in charge of people, of budgets, of production lines. Most leaders also believe that they are in charge of their greatest resource—their own brain. But how true is that? The more we understand about how the brain works, the clearer it becomes that often our brain kicks in before we do. For example, the more expert we become, the less we "think." Our brain can con us into being sure that we’re right—even when we’re wrong. And without consulting us, our brain decides who to trust. The good news is that leaders can use what researchers have learned about the brain to manage their own brains more effectively. That’s the first Brain Advantage. Just as important, leaders can use that knowledge to manage other people more effectively. That’s the second Brain Advantage. This book does for business leaders what few have time to do for themselves. It combines the latest brain research with insights from psychological studies of how people think. It uses powerful stories to convey that information, and presents it in short, readable chapters, each divided into three parts:
• "What’s the story?" reports in concise, digestible terms the science behind how the brain works.
• "Interesting, but so what?" discusses how this research is relevant to business leadership today.
• "What if …" illustrates what leaders might do differently if they were truly to "lead with the brain in mind."
The Brain Advantage shows leaders how to become even more effective decision-makers, communicators, and change-agents.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A well-researched book that outlines the issues and surprises about the brain that leaders could do well to understand." --David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, founding president of the NeuroLeadership Institute

"A very ambitious book, highly readable and entertaining, showing how the latest findings in neuropsychology are relevant to effective management." --Gary Klein, Ph.D., Applied Research Associates, author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591027645
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 11/24/2009
  • Pages: 250
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Madeleine L. Van Hecke, PhD (Elmhurst, IL), is a licensed clinical psychologist; a former Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois; and a lecturer and workshop leader for Open Arms Seminars. She is the author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things.

Lisa P. Callahan (Bartlett, IL) is the global lead for learning and knowledge management for the outsourcing practice at Accenture. Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services, and outsourcing company.

Brad Kolar (Naperville, IL) is the president of Kolar Associates, a management and leadership consulting company. He was formerly the chief learning officer at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Ken A. Paller, PhD (Evanston, IL), works as a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. He is also a Fellow of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, a Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the university.

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Table of Contents


1. Using Constraints to Free Up the Mind....................19
2. Do Expert Brains Think Less?....................29
3. Eureka! How to Make New Connections....................39
4. Can You Rewire Your Own Brain?....................47
5. Can I Trust You?....................59
6. Ouch! You Left Me Out....................67
7. Will the "Real" You Please Stand Up?....................77
8. Walking a Mile in Someone Else's Mind....................87
9. Fire, Ready, Aim? What Goes Wrong When Our Actions Get Ahead of Our Brain....................99
10. That's Not Fair!....................111
11. Rules of Engagement....................123
12. Think Globally and Locally!....................133
13. Mood Contagion: Can Everyone Be Having a Bad Day?....................143
14. Often Wrong, but Never in Doubt?....................155
15. The Halo Effect: Blinded by the Light....................167
16. Can I Have Your Attention Please?....................179
17. Seeing Is Believing? Not Always....................189
18. Blink or Think? When Should You Go with Your Gut?....................201
19. Multitasking: Asset or Liability?....................213
20. Are You Trapped in a Worry Circuit?....................223
21. Fight, Flight, or Freeze....................231
22. Memories: The Way We Never Were?....................241
23. What Doesn't Kill You Will Make You Stronger?....................251
24. Can Working Less Generate More?....................261
AFTERWORD: THE ADVANTAGES OF BRAIN RESEARCH by Ken Paller....................285
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First Chapter



Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Madeleine L. Van Hecke, Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken A. Paller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-764-5

Chapter One



What is going on in the brain of a jazz pianist? This is a tough question for neuroscientists to answer. How do you tuck a piano-or even a keyboard-into the tight enclosure of an MRI machine, where the top is only inches from the reclining person's nose? How can the jazz artist hear the music he is creating over the din of the MRI contraption itself? And if you are doing this research in order to study creativity, how can you tell that what you are seeing in the brain scan reflects actual improvisation and not simply the playing of a prearranged jazz piece?

These were the challenges faced by researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun as they planned their study of jazz improvisation. They met the first challenge by leaning a specially designed nonmagnetic keyboard against the slightly raised knees of the reclined musicians. The researchers suspended a mirror above the area so that the jazz artists could see the keys reflected there. The musicians wore earphones. These allowed them to hear the music they were creating. The earphones also allowed the musicians to hear a prerecorded jazz quartet accompaniment. This accompaniment made the situation more similar to the conditions in which the musicians ordinarily played. The researchers wanted to see if there were parts of the brain specifically involved in improvisation rather than in simply playing jazz. To do this, they had the musicians play two pieces-a jazz piece they had previously memorized and a piece that they improvised on the spot.

What did the researchers find? As expected, some areas of the brain were active no matter what the musicians played. These were the areas involved in looking at the keyboard, touching the keys, and listening to the music. In the improvisational piece, there was also activity that possibly reflected the brain encoding new combinations of sounds. But there were three other areas that were noticeably different when the musicians improvised compared to when they played the memorized piece.

Limb and Braun found that the medial prefrontal cortex-an area of the brain that is a few inches behind the center of the forehead-was much more active during improvisation. Some investigators have associated this part of the brain with self-expression, and with an intentional focus on inner thoughts and sensations rather than external stimuli. In some ways, this is similar to what Mikhail Csíkszentmihályi called "flow." When creative artists are in a state of flow, they are not consciously thinking ahead about the next note to play or the next brush stroke to make on a painting. This doesn't mean that their actions are random; they don't play just any old note. Instead, it is as if they are being guided by a set of internalized rules or strategies. These rules influence the result, but the artist doesn't need to consciously "will" each intention into an action.

It also turns out that what is not happening in the brain may be just as important as what is happening. While the medial prefrontal cortex was more active, there were two parts of the brain that were significantly less active when the musicians improvised, compared to when they played the memorized piece. One of these areas, the orbital frontal cortex, is involved with monitoring our behavior to keep it socially appropriate. This is the area that prompts us to worry about what others think of us. It tells us to behave-to stifle a giggle at a funeral and not to swear in front of Grandma. During these tests, this part of the prefrontal cortex was less active while the musicians improvised, perhaps because being concerned about judgment from others inhibits creativity.

There was a second area that was quiet during improvisation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved in what are sometimes called the brain's "executive functions." When we are consciously pursuing a goal, planning to achieve it, and monitoring our progress, this part of the brain is at work. In children, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. It continually develops through the teenage years, probably up until age twenty-five. That's why many ninth graders struggle to write a long research paper. Teachers have to point out the steps the students need to take that would seem obvious to us; steps including narrowing a topic to a manageable size, figuring out how to find basic information, and planning their work so that they can turn the assignment in on time. The point is that this kind of thinking and planning that can be so essential to accomplishing many goals is not what drives improvisation. In fact, it may interfere with the state of flow.

In the flow state, thoughts and sensations can come through without being controlled, judged, or censored. In contrast, when executive functions are activated, the flow state is interrupted. For example, when an artist steps back from her painting to consciously consider her progress, she is activating the executive parts of the brain. When this happens, the self-expressive parts become idle. Bringing in the "director" who consciously analyzes and evaluates temporarily shuts down the "playful wanderer" who discovers new connections.

A similar pattern of conscious analysis interfering with creativity has been found in research that focuses on what happens when people attempt to solve problems. Psychologist Jonathan Schooler, now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, showed that if you made people explain their thinking while they were trying to solve a puzzle, they were less likely to experience a spontaneous insight that revealed the answer. This shows that it is not only artistic expression that is interrupted by thinking analytically about what we are doing. In some circumstances, conscious analysis can also interfere with creative problem solving and innovation.



Companies need innovation to thrive; leaders are expected to encourage innovative thinking. This creates a challenge for many leaders since it requires a neural orientation that they typically avoid. A successful leader, for example, relies heavily on the area of her brain that controls executive functions. Whether the goal is increasing revenues or changing the corporate culture, she needs to plan a strategy, monitor progress, and make adjustments when things go off track. Goal-oriented business leaders are consciously, intentionally, and deliberately thinking about what they are doing.

None of these adjectives describe what jazz musicians do when they improvise. While the business leader consciously creates plans and monitors them "on purpose," the only thing the virtuoso jazz musician does on purpose is decide to improvise in the first place. After that, conscious control fades, and he enters into that state of flow where unconscious processes take over. The jazz musician does not continually shift to that controlling mode, engaging the prefrontal cortex to monitor the piece that is emerging. He does not consciously ask: "Well, what should I do next with this theme?" Instead, he improvises in a "twilight zone" where expert decisions about what to do are made unconsciously.

This means that the process of improvisation is at odds with the thought processes that business leaders usually foster. Indeed, the kind of thinking most likely to result in innovative ideas is at odds with many typical business goals. For example, efficiency is valued in business, and standardization is the way to achieve it. Leaders systematize business procedures so that employees don't have to reinvent the wheel but can instead use proven methods. The leader's job in this scenario is to reduce variability, not to introduce it.

In contrast, creating variations on a theme is exactly what jazz artists do. Leaders don't want employees to reinvent the same old wheel, but they do want new wheels that improve what already exists. They want better products and services and original ways to solve problems. At upper levels of management, companies want leaders who are imaginative enough to see the entire industry from different perspectives. But the values that are typically embraced in business, such as careful planning and efficiency, make it hard for some leaders to endorse the kind of thinking that leads to innovation.

This tension between efficiency and the apparently inefficient meanderings of the innovative mind are what led Mark Fishman, MD, president of the Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research, to criticize Six Sigma. At a Creativity Colloquium sponsored by the Harvard Business School, Fishman commented, "If there is one device that has destroyed more innovation than any other, it is Six Sigma." The problem is that "models like Six Sigma attempt to reduce variability, establish norms, and then increase adherence to those norms." This is great for efficiency but disastrous for innovation. Such standardization is especially problematic during the formative stages of creative ideas. As creativity guru Teresa Amabile notes, "The early discovery phase of the creative process is inherently confusing and inefficient. So don't impose efficiency-minded controls during that phase." The point is not to say that Six Sigma isn't valuable-just that there are times and places to apply it.

Another way in which innovation is at odds with typical business goals is that, by its very nature, improvisation entails risk taking. In contrast, reducing risks is often a crucial part of a leader's job. This means that leaders may need to manage their own risk aversion in order to encourage innovative thinking in their employees. Ed Catmull, president of the innovative animation film studio Pixar remarked, "We as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new. That's why you see so many movies that are so much alike. It also explains why a lot of films aren't very good."

Does this mean that leaders should proclaim free zones where innovators have no constraints? For example, should they be encouraged to ignore the practical realities of cost production or even the company's strategic plan as they dream up new products and services? Well, no. The fact is that jazz artists do have constraints. The genre of "jazz" has its own rules. There are many moves that an accomplished artist would not make during the improvisation of a particular piece. The jazz artist who excels doesn't have to think consciously about those rules. Rather than restricting innovation, these constraints free creativity because jazz musicians know that within those rules, they can try any innovation they like. If not overly suffocating, constraints won't destroy creativity-just the opposite-they create a safe space within which the jazz artist can wander at will.

Business leaders can similarly impose constraints that encourage rather than stifle creativity, but these must be the right sorts of "nonsuffocating" constraints. What are the right sorts of constraints? First, they are broad. The conventions that constrain the jazz artist are general. They don't dictate, for example, specific moves like "rest for two beats here" or "use a Bflat here." In her article on "How to Kill Creativity," Teresa Amabile advises leaders to "give people freedom within the company's goals. Tell them which mountain to climb, but let them decide how to climb it." The mountain-the company's goals, vision, and mission-constitutes the broad parameters within which the innovative employee must function.

Stephan Haeckel, director of strategic studies at IBM's Advanced Business Institute, advises companies to go further than merely using the company's vision, goals, or mission as a guide for employees. He writes that companies should also develop governing principles that clearly define "how far managers can go without seeking approval." For example, one governing principle might be "Always get and respond to customer feedback on new products under development." Another might be "Always assess the market need for a new product before implementing it." This principle could be written to include a statement of just how large a projected market must exist in order to move ahead. It is impossible to prescribe a specific set of governing principles that all organizations should embrace. The principles need to grow out of the company's primary purpose and goals. In Adaptive Enterprise, Haeckel shows leaders how to create governing principles that are clear without being suffocating. He also shows how these governing principles, combined with a clear definition of an organization's purpose and identification of any absolute constraints, can free up creativity. As Haeckel writes, leaders who provide this kind of clear context provide "an unambiguous framework for individual activity, aligning and bounding organizational actions without dictating what those actions should be."

Many organizations create guiding or governing principles. That is not necessarily new. One of the key differences in Haeckel's approach is the way that these principles drive decision making and management. Often in organizations, guiding principles serve as high-level reminders of how people should behave. However, Haeckel uses them in a more structured, pragmatic way. Governing principles are not reminders-they are boundaries for both employees and managers. He advocates giving people considerable latitude in their jobs as long as they stay within those principles. The principles "define the boundaries of empowerment to ensure that creative, unprecedented responses remain consistent with organizational purpose and policy. They help the system find the balance between freedom and clear direction."

Done well, boundaries that create safety for the employee also alleviate the problem of micromanagement. Micromanagement comes from the leader's fear that costly mistakes might occur-mistakes for which they will be held responsible. So managers adopt "no surprises" as their mantra. This in turn gets translated as a requirement to notify the leader about every change in direction or every decision that is made. One employee, for example, complained that even though the project was well within budget, the supervisor insisted on approving every expenditure, no matter how small. As Pixar's Ed Catmull comments, "Managers need to learn that they don't always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it's OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised." Leaders who have set boundaries may find it easier to relinquish tight control. The boundaries create a sense of safety for the leader as well as for the employees.

WHAT IF ...?

1. What if leaders see themselves as facilitators of innovative people?

Sometimes "powerful people hold forth in meetings even though others in the room [have] much better ideas for solving problems." Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University's School of Engineering, made this comment during the Harvard Creativity Colloquium. The group was discussing the idea that leaders need to stop viewing themselves as the major source of innovative ideas. Instead, they should take on the role of facilitating innovation in others. Theresa Lant of New York University suspected that many leaders would not be attracted to this role. Lant asked, "Where is the glory in being a 'facilitator' as a manager? How do you get a management layer made up of real humans who aspire to that role and will do it?"

As Lant's comment indicates, it is easy to be more impressed with a leader whose own inspirations make headlines than with the leader who stimulates innovation from behind the scenes. But what if leaders adopted the attitude of Pixar's Ed Catmull? Catmull commented, "For 20 years, I pursued a dream of making the first computer-animated film. To be honest, after that goal was realized-when we finished Toy Story-I was a bit lost. But then I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to help create the unique environment that allowed that film to be made."


Excerpted from THE BRAIN ADVANTAGE by MADELEINE L. VAN HECKE LISA P. CALLAHAN BRAD KOLAR KEN A. PALLER Copyright © 2010 by Madeleine L. Van Hecke, Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken A. Paller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted November 12, 2010

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    Accessible, articulate guide to brain research for executives

    Great business leaders strive to improve their knowledge and capabilities, and to gain as much experience as possible. However, most executives do absolutely nothing to develop their cognitive processes, that is, to improve the way their brains work - although the brain is malleable and teachable according clinical psychologist Madeleine L. Van Hecke, cognitive neuroscientist Ken A. Paller, learning authority Lisa P. Callahan and management expert Brad Kolar. The authors step forward to help businesspeople enrich their brains, anyone's most crucial tool. This book presents up-to-date brain research and down-to-earth tips on how to employ this information to become a more effective leader. getAbstract recommends this unusual, intriguing book to anyone who wants to think more clearly.

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