sfwork logo

The Right Brain Manager

"The Right Brain Manager" by Dr Harry Alder - Piatkus (1994), 191pp, £8.99pb

Review by Mark McKergow

Dr Harry Alder's book is subtitled "How to harness the power of your mind to achieve personal and business success". In it, he offers an overview of the differences between left and right brain thought processes, and illustrates how they can help in changing the way we think about things, which can lead to changes in the we act. Alder examines areas such as imagination and intuition, changing our viewpoint, memory and self image in an accessible way, before drawing some straightforward conclusions as to the desirability of using both left and right brain thinking in the corporate world on the 21st century.

Henry Mintzberg's recent work "The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning" received a great deal of attention within the pages of Long Range Planning. At the heart of Mintzberg's observations is the notion that there are fundamental differences between strategic planning and strategic thinking. Strategic planning, that is to say the programming of existing strategies into plans and financial projections, has been found wanting as a tool for helping organisations into the future. What the need to plan has been confused with the need to think strategically, to envision the future and the part that the organisation will play in it.

Psychologists and brain researchers have observed that our human brains have two sides which appear to serve very different thought processes. The left side of the brain is active during logic and reasoning processes, often involving words and numbers. The right side of the brain, however, works with large chunks of information in the form of patterns and visual images, leading to an ability to deal intuitively with complex issues. Planning is an activity in which the left brain predominates, says Mintzberg, whilst strategic thinking is much more a matter for the right brain.

This book is clearly intended to be a "how to..." book rather than a theoretical discussion, and its focus is on raising the practice of using intuition, visualisation and other thought techniques in management and other fields. It is clearly written, and deals in anecdotes, stories and other ways of getting points across. Alder has brought together ideas and methods from a number of areas, including lateral thinking (de Bono), memory and mind mapping (Buzan) and neuro-linguistic programming, in a way designed to be useful to a wide audience.

Here lie both the strength and weakness of the book. It says nothing fundamentally new, and appears to cover ground which has been covered before in many "self-development" books. What is newer is the focus on the manager as a client for this material (although even this is not actually original - though Alder asserts that "Intuition has no place in an MBA syllabus", it was a major part of the MBA programme that I studied). So what we have here is a useful starter pack on thinking and how it can help or hinder.

The material presented here is potentially very valuable, particularly for senior managers, strategists and planners. I have used many of these methods myself, and can recommend them to anyone seeking some fresh insight and possibilities in their lives or in their work. However, Alder's presentation of them could have benefitted from a little application of his own medicine - more pictures, more activities for the reader, perhaps fewer blocks of text to read. A lot of the benefits from thought techniques come from actually applying them, rather than from simply reading about them, and the measured presentation may fail to inspire people who naturally use their right brains already, or to initiate those who habitually ignore them.

If Alder's book is aimed at a wide audience of managers, then it is well aimed. However, there is a large amount of material which has developed over the past twenty years about the use of the mind in processing complex information which may be relevant to readers of Long Range Planning, but is not mentioned here at all. In addition to Mintzberg's work, the developments of Elliot Jacques and his team at Brunel University into cognitive processes, complexity and ways in which organisational hierarchies manage their work is directly linked to the same areas of whole-brain thinking. So too are the developments in accelerated learning which have emerged during the same period. There are a lot more possible applications and relevances to using our minds effectively in the context of organisations than Alder describes in his book.

In summary, the Right Brain Manager is much more about right brain thinking than management. As such, it's a good overview of the subject, and pulls together various material in a useful way. There's also a lot more to be said and done on the subject of using our minds effectively, especially within the context of organisations and management. It's to be hoped that Dr Alder and the other writers keep developing their material and helping us to apply it to organisations in the future.