Cyndy over at MouseMusings sent me a paper in response to my Personal Unproductivity post that contrasted the workflow management styles of left-brain versus right-brain dominated thinkers. Here’s a part of it (my paraphrasing):

Work Management Attribute Left-Brainers Right-Brainers
Favoured Communication Medium Presentation Hand-Outs
Measure of Personal Success Authority Freedom
Preferred Worktool Type Machine-Assisted (Toys, Gadgets) Manual (Sensory)
Learning Style Study, Analyze Observe
Work Tasks Communication Style Tell, Impose, Assign Ask, Request, Collaborate
Work Assistance Style Direct, Instruct, Top-Down Offer, Suggest, Peer Assist
Leadership Style Command & Control Enable, Empower, Trust
Method of Evaluating Skills Tested Demonstrated
When Tasks are Done As Scheduled As Needed
How Plans are Documented Formal Plan Messages (Improvisation)

We talked about whether it was fair to generalize about these styles on a gender (male left-brain, female right-brain) or political (conservative left-brain, progressive right-brain) basis, and concluded, I think, that such generalizations were too simplistic. And none of us is entirely left-brained or right-brained: We sometimes use styles and approaches from each column, depending on the circumstances.

We also agreed, I think, that these styles aren’t limited to the workplace — they manifest themselves in relationships with family and styles in which activities at home are carried out as well.

Cyndy digested this down to a catchphrase for right-brainers (which we both are) to use in managing: Observe, Ask, Offer. Here’s how she put it:

Observe: Allow peers to observe peers. Everyone likes to help and be helped. It takes far less time than creating manuals and documents no one will read or use.

Ask: What truly annoys you on a daily basis? What would help or hinder your production? What makes you happy? If x tool were available would you be inclined to use it? Why or why not? How could this work better? Sometimes you need to go through an iterative, intuitive process to get intelligent answers when you ask: People often don’t know what the answer is, they only know the problem.

Offer: Offer solutions that work for you but don’t assume they will work for everyone and thereby mandate their use. Make tools, programs and activities that suit different work and learning styles and make them optional.

Since then we’ve been playing around with this (we even got into Eliot’s What The Thunder Said in our musings on how it relates to the Upanishads), and I’ve tried to expand it from a catchphrase for managing into a mantra for living — something right-brainers could use to guide all of their day-to-day activities. Something that would work along with a daily workflow management process like Getting Things Done, and focus your mind on actually doing the various tasks you do, once Getting Things Done had helped you decide which to do. Or maybe I’m being a bit schizophrenic here — does it make sense to be using a rigorous process for organizing your “stuff” and your activities, when your approach to those activities is decidedly relaxed, flexible, interactive and improvisational?

Here’s the mantra that has evolved out of this for me. I’ve been using it for the last few days and it’s got me through some challenging business meetings, a personal family crisis, and a couple of stressful situations, with flying colours:

Sense, Self-control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate

(or, in French, where the words are more nuanced yet less ambiguous: Sentir, Se Commander, Comprendre, Poser, Imaginer, Offrir, Collaborer).


Observe, listen, pay attention, focus, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
Self-control: Don’t prejudge or jump to conclusions. Don’t lose your cool. Focus.
Understand: Make sure you have the facts and appreciate the context. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
Collaborate: Create something together. Solve a problem with a collective answer better than any set of individual answers. Learn to yield, to build on, to bridge, to adapt your thinking.

I know, it sounds like a Buddhist homily. Tedious. Pretentious. But it’s also natural, the way things are done by creatures not burdened or enlightened by man’s double-edged capacity to rationalize and moralize. When I think about applying these seven steps to every situation I face, it’s not like I’m imposing something, it’s more like I’m liberating myself from a lot of bad, very human habits that I need to unlearn.

All I know is that, for me, it works. Thanks, Cyndy.

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  1. I’m shocked. I was almost positive that I would have been left brained. I am a software developer/data analyst, have a BMath in Computer science and am overall pretty analytical. I am definitely male and probably slightly conservative, although fiscally more than socially. But when I read the left/right brain management differences I almost always come right brained or at the very least somewhere in the middle. Quite surprising really.Oh, and your seven steps make a lot of sense and I think that, in general, I operate this way.

  2. Sarah Nagy says:

    You asked “does it make sense to be using a rigorous process for organizing your “stuff” and your activities, when your approach to those activities is decidedly relaxed, flexible, interactive and improvisational?” works hard to answer this question as a yes – in that what seems natural to the left-brained, for right-brainers it’s a learned behavior. (She’s a right-brainer, too.) I fall right smack in the middle, knowing that the answers to some of my creative confusion lie in rigor, but never managing to quite focus enough on the systems that might allow me to achieve something with all those fantastic relational skills. Thanks for the link, btw – I’m going nuts with his guidelines for making Outlook do what it’s supposed to (according to his system, of course).

  3. Cyndy says:

    Thank you too, Dave. In answer to your question, I think if the ‘rigorous process’ is used as a guideline with personal improvisation and flexibility applied, then it indeed helps one to focus without being overly restrictive. The key being to allow for personal flexibility or it will be rejected.

  4. Greg says:

    I have some questions about using a left/right brain model on this. It creates too much of a dichotomy – much like the mars/venus dichotomy. While it is true regarding both models that a high percentage of people will fall into one or the other side, a substantial minority don’t fall into either one.It would seem more productive to look at it from a Meyers-Briggs perspective, or The Gallup Organization’s “StrengthsFinder” approach. In both cases you’re classifying on the basis of multiple characteristics which, taken together, do a more adequate job of modeling thinking and work styles. Someone might actually prefer to assign tasks and offer suggestions on how to do it – a strategy not allowed for in your bivalent system. A person strong in “Individualizing” (gallup) might actually tailor their approach to each different individual on the team (and that would likely be the most productive overall).In looking at your chart, it also appears that “negative connotation” words occur in the descriptions of left-brain, and “positive connotation” words occur in the descriptions of right-brain. Could this be an unconscious bias based on your own self-description? If so, it would also be eliminated by using a multivalent classification system rather than a bivalent one.Regards,

  5. shari says:

    Ooooo. Much to think about here. I like the process because it allows for integration, kind of like a feedback loop but it’s a positive one, allowing one to spiral into growth.The one place that I pause at is step one: sometimes the reasons why we get stuck there is because the feelings are just too strong, too disorganizing, too primitive. Lots of people put a lot of effort into not sensing, just so they could function, go to work each day, keep their lives in order. It works in the short run but not in the long run. How to deal with those strong chaotic disorganizing primitive feelings is of vital interest to me. Important work in the long run but there also needs to be a way of dealing with them in the short run.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. This is working very well for me. They say everyone needs to find their own mantra, and this one fits me like a glove. The only thing I don’r like about it is the acronym for the seven steps: SSUQIOC, it’s either meaningless or rude. Greg, I confess I recognized my bias in the left/right chart, partly because I used to be very left-brained, anal and analytical and inflexible and not at all creative. All those ‘negative left words’ were me at age 20 and 30. Shari: That’s an interesting point. I believe intuitively that all emotion stems from sensation. But that’s why the second step is Self Control — so the emotion that flows from sensing doesn’t completely take over and prevent you from focusing. I usually find my instincts tell me when I’m being too emotional. In my experience managers too often go to the other extreme — they rationalize everything to the point they become insensitive (i.e. they lack what’s called ’emotional intelligence’).

  7. Don Dwiggins says:

    Your discomfort with the “rigorous process” got me to thinking about rigor in the arts, both esthetic and practical. When learning to master an instrument or tool, or to maintain and improve mastery, a rigorous process is essential. A famous soprano (the singing kind, not the mob kind 8^) once said “If I don’t practice it for a day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, my maid knows it; if I don’t practice for three days, the whole world knows it”. A flying instructor once told me “If you give an experienced pilot a plane and an hour to spend, he’ll spend it practicing takeoffs and landings”.Following up on that, I suggest a slight change in terminology for the second of the elements of your mantra: for “self-control” substitute “self-mastery” (don’t know if you’d need a different French phrase).(BTW, I called them “elements” rather than “steps” because it seems to me that they could all be continuously operative, with perhaps one or two in primary focus at any one time. Have you found yourself using them in strict sequence?)

  8. Bren says:

    Great thoughts, Dave. I like the seven steps, though they are kinda tough to remember.One note about the ‘Observe/Ask/Offer’ catchphrase. In the asking, I’ve found great value in trying to “ask” in an ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ style. It’s not intuitive for me, but I find it pretty helpful in setting tone and direction…More at:

  9. Gil Friend says:

    Thanks Dave,But if my Favoured Communication Medium is neither Presentation nor Hand-Outs, but Discussion, then what kind of brain am I?Cheers,Gil

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