Are you a left brainer or a right brainer?

February 1, 2009

Your brain is divided into two completely-separate hemispheres. Each hemisphere processes information differently.

Your left hemisphere processes information in series. It thinks in languag ]]>

Your right hemisphere processes information in parallel. It thinks in mental images. It “sees” the big picture.

One side of your brain or the other is dominant. In itself, that should not be surprising since it’s consistent with another well ]]>

Some people are left handed and some people are right handed. In a similar fashion, some people are left brainers and some people are right brainers.

What are you?

If you’re the CEO of a major corporation, chances are good you are a left brainer. Before you ]]>

If you have a job in marketing, chances are good you are a right brainer. You often make d ]]>

Verbal vs. visual.

Another striking difference: Left brainers have a strong preference for verbal thinking while right brainers favor visual thinking.

When a management type makes a speech, he or she usually stands behind a podium and reads a script or the words on a teleprompter. (Or uses PowerPoint slides with nothing but words.)

When a marketing type makes a speech, he or she usually stands in front of a screen and makes a presentation using dozens of visuals.

Because they are verbally-oriented, left-brain people are usually good talkers. Sales people, for example, are often exceptionally good talkers, but notoriously bad at the paperwork, or writing part of their job. Right-brain people are usually good writers.

Why are right brainers good writers? Because arranging words on a page is as much a visual challenge as it is a verbal one. In letters and e-mails, for example, right brainers will often arrange the words so that each line contains a complete thought.

Having met many of the creative luminaries of the Mad Men era, I was amazed at the time how conspicuously “nonverbal” most of them were in ordinary conversation.

David Ogilvy, in particular. As Ken Roman writes in his book, The King of Madison Avenue, “In conversation, if he agreed, he would nod. If he disagreed, nothing. But he’d go back to his office and write a memo — often fierce, sometimes vicious. Ferocious in writing, he tended to be cowardly in person.”

Analytical vs. holistic thinking.

Take the left brainers on Wall Street who developed the art and science of risk management. They hired Ph.D.’s to build sophisticated computer systems to comb through complicated mortgage portfolios to analyze everything that could possibly go wrong.

Where was the Security and Exchange Commission when all this was happening? “In loosening the capital rules,” reported The New York Times, the SEC “also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments.”

Right-brain holistic thinkers would have looked at the big picture. Why are they lending money to people who can’t afford to pay it back?

The computer is the ultimate left-brain machine. Magnificent at analyzing and keeping track of millions of details, but totally lost when it comes to looking for the big picture.

An electronic brain can only look backwards; it can only analyze existing data. Trying to project this data into the future is an exercise in futility. A human brain, especially one with a right-brain bias, can “visualize” a number of scenarios of what might happen in the future.

Managers vs. entrepreneurs.

The vast majority of managers in America today are verbally-oriented left brainers. Why is this so? Because of the way people move up the ladder in the corporate world. The general principle is: You don’t get promoted, you get elected.

Management is like politics. Your fellow workers determine whom they would like to work for. A left brainer is an extrovert, particularly good at schmoozing with people. A right brainer is an introvert, totally outclassed when it comes to office politics.

As companies get older and bigger, their upper levels tend to be staffed almost exclusively with left brainers. As a result, the innovators (primarily right brainers) tend to leave or get pushed out.

What saves the situation, as far as the economy is concerned, are entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Herb Kelleher and dozens of others.

Entrepreneurs are invariably right brainers who often turn out to be exceptionally good marketing thinkers, too.

Take Steve Jobs who at one time was fired from Apple Computer. Jobs is a classic right brainer with a intense focus on a product’s visual appearance and a distain for the consumer’s opinion.

“Steve Jobs doesn’t do market research,” said Guy Kawasaki. “Market research for Steve Jobs is the right hemisphere talks to the left hemisphere.”

“People don’t know what they want,” said Jobs, “until you show it to them.”

Once again, what are you?

While it would be nice to think you could operate both sides of your brain with equal facility, the facts suggest otherwise.

Ambidexterity vs. ambibrainerity.

Take ambidexterity, a condition that is extremely rare. Most people who are thought to be ambidextrous (switch hitters in baseball, for example) are really left handers who, with a great deal of practice, have taught themselves right-handed skills. Or vice versa.

Ambibrainerity is also extremely rare. While you can learn to exercise the less-favored half of your brain, working both sides equally is almost impossible. Depending on how you were born, you are going to have to live your life either as a left brainer or a right brainer.

That’s not necessarily bad.

It takes all types to make the world go round. It takes artists and bankers. Accountants and musicians. School teachers and real-estate agents. Writers and engineers. Architects and lawyers. Every occupation seems to attract people who favor one side of their brain or the other.

Once more, what are you?

Everyone knows whether they are left handed or right handed, but most people have no idea which side of their brain they favor.

Even though your brain is unbalanced, you still use both sides to think while favoring one side or the other, much like a person uses both hands to do manual work while favoring one hand or the other.

A person whose brain is too much out of balance, however, is likely to suffer from one of the brain disorders such as autism (too much on the left) or dyslexia (too much on the right.)

In young children whose brains are still developing, some researchers believe it’s possible to permanently correct these disorders by a hemispheric approach. That is, by stimulating one side of the brain more than the other.

Brain Balance Centers is a pioneer in this approach.

Certainty vs. uncertainty.

Logical left-brain leaders often have supreme confidence in their ability to predict the future.

Did you know, for example, that all printed media, including Advertising Age, are going to be obsolete in just eight years? At least that’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted in 2007.

“Within 10 years, the consumption of anything we think of as media today, whether it is print, TV or the Internet will in fact be delivered over IP and will be digital,” said Mr. Ballmer. “Everything will be delivered digitally. Everything you read, you’ll read on a screen.”

As I remember, radio was going to make newspapers and magazines obsolete. Television was going to make radio obsolete. And now the Internet is going to make everything obsolete? We’ll see.

“Certainty” is the mark of a left brainer. Whereas holistic right brainers are never quite sure.

Take the financial bailouts advocated by almost every major politician and business leader. Without the billions funneled into A.I.G., Citigroup, Bank of America and others, the financial industry in America would have collapsed.

Who says so? It might be illogical, but as a marketing person I’m strongly opposed to the bailouts.

Why? Because I want a strong financial community, not a weak one. And the more financial institutions that compete in the marketplace, the weaker the industry. To strengthen the financial community we need fewer companies.

In my opinion, letting Chrysler go bankrupt years ago would have strengthened the U.S. automobile industry, not weakened it. Because then General Motors and Ford would have had one fewer domestic competitor.

I’m not suggesting a right-brain takeover of corporate America. Frankly business needs both: Logical, analytical left brainers to manage the business and intuitive, holistic right brainers to create the new ideas and concepts that will insure future success.

For that to happen, we need more diversity in the boardroom. Not just in gender and race, but also in a better balance of left brainers and right brainers.

Reality vs. perception.

Management deals in facts and figures, an analytical approach to a problem. “Getting to the bottom of the situation” is the goal. In short, management deals in reality. 

Marketing deals almost exclusively in perception. What matters to marketing people are not the “facts” of a situation, but what’s in the minds of consumers which may or may not correspond with reality.

Since perceptions are extremely difficult to measure, marketing people have to use intuitive, holistic thinking.

Management people are aware of perception, of course. The problem is, they believe perception is a mirror. It’s just a reflection of reality. Change the reality and you change the perception.

Marketing people disagree. Changing reality is easy. But changing perception is one of the most difficult jobs in the universe.

“This is our surest move ever.” That’s what a chief executive said before the launch of a new product that could make or break his company. That chief executive was Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca-Cola, who confidently predicted the success of New Coke.

How could it miss? The company conducted 190,000 consumer taste tests that proved conclusively that New Coke tasted better than the original formula. And doesn’t the better product win in the marketplace?

The universal answer to this question in the boardrooms of corporate America is: “Yes, of course. That’s why we spend millions of dollars benchmarking our competitors. We won’t launch a new product until we can develop a clear-cut competitive advantage.”

That’s reality at work in management circles. That’s also why in America today the vast majority of new supermarket and drugstore products are total failures.

Expansion vs. contraction.

Almost every left-brain-led company in the world is committed to expanding its line. More products, more markets, more distribution channels, more variations, more price points.

Take the U.S. airline industry. Every major carrier offers multiple classes of service and flies both domestic and international routes. That makes sense to a left-brain manager.

But not to a right-brain entrepreneur like Herb Kelleher who launched Southwest Airlines, the first “no-frills” airline. Coach only. Domestic only.

(Four of the five largest airlines in America have gone bankrupt and the fifth one, American Airlines, is losing money. In the last 10 years, American Airlines has had revenues of $195.2 billion and lost $4.3 billion. In the last 10 years, Southwest Airlines has had revenues of $64.6 billion and managed to make $4.7 billion in net profits.)

What would a right brainer suggest to a money-losing major airline in America?

Do the opposite of Southwest. Turn yourself into an all-first-class airline. That’s illogical, of course. That means “contracting” your business when every major company in the world wants to expand its business.

Take Home Depot. One of Robert Nardelli’s first moves was to spend more than $6 billion to acquire some 25 wholesale suppliers in order to expand the company’s building-supply business. (A business that The Home Depot eventually sold.)

Marketing’s first thought is usually to narrow the focus. You can’t build a brand if you don’t stand for something in the mind. Often the best way to stand for something is to isolate a single service you can dominate or an attribute you can own.

Execution vs. strategy.

“In real life, strategy is actually very straightforward,” wrote Jack Welch. “You pick a general direction and implement like hell.”

Most management publications are also focused on execution. Fortune magazine once reported, “Ninety percent of organizations fail to execute on otherwise well-planned strategies.”

But if they failed to execute the strategies, how does one determine they were “well-planned in the first place?”

How do marketing people deal with chief executive officers who have the power to make strategic marketing decisions without the experience only a lifetime of marketing can accumulate? It’s not easy.

“Nice presentation, but we’ll do it my way,” says the typical CEO, “and I’m counting on our marketing team to do a great job executing our new strategy.”

Common sense vs. marketing sense.

Marketing ideas are conceptually difficult because they contradict common sense. Because they deal with changing human perceptions, an enormously difficult task. Ask any psychiatrist or psychologist.

Guess who’s winning the war in the boardroom? It’s not the marketing side of the table. It’s the common sense or management side.

When a company gets into trouble, the solutions are always the same common-sense solutions. Improve the products. Cut the costs. Reduce the prices.

Then hold employee meetings and talk about loyalty, enthusiasm and team building.

Also lining up with the management people on the common-sense side of the table are the lawyers and the accountants. They get along quite well.

When management has a legal problem, it turns to its lawyers and invariably takes their advice.

When management has an accounting problem, it turns to its CPAs and invariably takes their advice.

When management has a marketing problem, it turns to its marketing people and says, “We’ll do it my way because marketing is just common sense. And no one has more common sense than the CEO, right?”


But common sense doesn’t work in business today. The only thing that works in business today is marketing sense.

Battle over? Or has it just begun?

Every year, management dogma is reinforced by some of the most important newspapers, magazines and television channels in America: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Fox Business.

Seldom, if ever, do these media outlets present the marketing side of the story.

Sure, they talk about marketing, but only in management terms. Building better products, offering a full line, expanding the brand and especially the application of plain old common sense.

All of these concepts make sense. They just don’t make marketing sense. Management will never understand marketing. Why should they? Management has many other important things to worry about: production, finance, legal, employee recruitment, government relations.

To sell a marketing concept to management, a marketing person should keep this principle in mind: Left-brain management will never understand right-brain marketing.

Dialog vs. dog-and-pony show.

At one of his first meetings at IBM, Lou Gerstner was listening to a briefing by one of his lieutenants who was using an overhead projector and transparencies. On the second transparency, Mr. Gerstner reached over, switched off the projector and said, “Let’s just talk about your business.”

Management is verbal and analytical. Yet most marketing presentations are visual and emotional. They sell creativity when they should be selling logic.

I should know. When I ran an advertising agency, we put enormous efforts into making elaborate visually-oriented slide and flip-chart presentations to sell advertising and marketing concepts.

Every client meeting followed the same pattern: A one-hour dog-and-pony show followed by three or four hours of discussion.

Now I think that was a mistake. The presentations treated the management team as consumers rather than as “strategists.” As a result, they reacted as consumers. They gave their approval on the basis of how they “felt” about the proposed advertising rather than whether or not the strategies were on target.

What’s interesting to consumers is often deadly dull to a company’s management who know too much about its products, its markets, its competition.

In our consulting practice, we reverse the procedure. We start with the dialog, not with the dog or the pony. We have three or four hours of discussion before proposing “solutions” to a company’s marketing problems.

What works in marketing today is simplicity, not complexity. But a simple idea can get lost in an over-produced, over-dramatized marketing presentation designed to impress management.

A better approach might be to sit down with management and say, “Let’s just talk about your business.”