I recently had the honor of attending the 175th Anniversary celebration of Miss Porter’s School, where a high caliber panel of neuroscientists discussed how the mind construes meaning from the arts and ultimately gains joy from the process.
The findings of Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences at Columbia University, and Dr. Margaret Livingstone, Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School were fireworks of edutainment. Their results are highly applicable to the modern workplace in general and in particular, to agile team collaboration.
Difference and Repetition: The Act of Meaning Making
Whether it is Mona Lisa’s smile or Turner’s reductionist ships in the storm: Through a minute process of repetition and differentiation, the brain construes meaning from something it believes to already know. In the process, a dialogue between synapsis and genes starts during which a new memory is formed from the repetitive input of new information. How that process works might be best illustrated by the images below.
If we look at Figure 1, our brain will make us believe that we see the exact same images of a well-known celebrity. Our brain links the dots of what we think we already know, Dr. Livingstone explained. Therefore, we brush over potential differences and prematurely construe the two pictures to be identical. Moreover, being challenged with seeing the photo upside-down, we may be immediately prompted to try and discover who this person is and take pride in successfully identifying who we think we see.
If we look at Figure 2, however, we see crucial and unforgettable differences. Once we have differentiated the irregularities in the right photo, the detected differences will be stored in our memory where they form a permanent learning path.
To put this theory to the test, go back to Figure 1 and look at the same images. Can you look at them now without immediately spotting the differences? In all likelihood not. In fact, the first aspects you will see now, are the differences your brain stored as new information before. More important, you will never be able to “un-see” the discovered nuances. The image has changed for you -- forever.
If You Remember Anything I Have Said, Your Brain Has Changed
It is precisely that learning process and that memory building derived from recognizing differences that provokes our brain to ultimately and unchangeable construe something new; or as Dr. Eric Kandel put it during his speech: “If you remember anything I’ve said, that means your brain has changed.”
The high levels of brain activity in the process releases feelings of joy, a sense of achievement. We therefore find paintings or activities that put our brain to work, more interesting than the ones that create less brain activity.
What Does That Mean for the Modern Workplace?
Work in modern organizations is increasingly changing from a more or less hierarchical workflow that is focused on effectiveness to flatter and more innovation-oriented forms of collaboration. According to Kandel’s and Livingstone’s research, these forms of collaboration in and of themselves may cause a higher level of engagement and simply joy in the process. As these findings are backed up by numerous workplace studies, the question remains, how we can leverage the deeper levels of the described neuroscientific results for the collaboration in the modern workplace.
Here are some tips to improve agile team collaboration in terms of creative output and joy:
- Focus on discovering something new: Remember, we are not in a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. We want to truly discover something new that each meeting participant can then take to the next higher level. Make discovering something new a true team meeting effort.
- Actively uncover differences: Yes, agile team collaboration is coined by dynamic feedback-loops, and a focus on creative output. However, all too easily our mind plays tricks on us and makes us believe that we already heard it all and that we already know which direction to go in. It simply takes considerable effort to discover differences. Therefore, teams should pause regularly and actively ask the question what was different about the new information provided by any given team member.
- Work with reframes to challenge assumptions: Reframes are exercises that reverse the meaning of a statement: What if xyz was not true? What if it was? And what would we do if …?
- Watch for imbalances: Go out of your way to check whether each and every voice has been sufficiently heard, challenged, and driven forward. Also, question yourself as a team: Do we lean toward accepting certain ideas more readily than others?
- Shake things up: Regularly change the procedures, you have established. Agile team flows are more standardized than one might think. While that has a number of innovation enabling advantages, it also harbors some risks. Therefore, it is good to actively break the routine occasionally, even if it is an agile routine.
For all of these exercises, the rule of thumb remains: The more the brain is actively engaged and challenged, the more nuances we will be able to discover. In turn, the more nuances we discover, the more joy we will gain from the process. Self-evidently, for the same reason, a team will gain even greater joy from creating their own best practices for maximizing their collective intelligence.
Dr. Erika Jacobi is the President of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc., an international change, growth, and innovation consulting firm with offices in New York City and Munich, Germany. As a cognitive linguist and organizational behavior specialist, she has worked with teams and organizations on three continents. Her research focuses cognitive patterns in the identity construction of successful organizations. For more information, visit www.lc-global-us.com or follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LC_GLOBAL