The best selling author on right-brain thinking, great workspaces, and the “grilled cheese option”

A former speechwriter for Al Gore, Daniel Pink now cuts an impressive speech-making path of his own: his website lists a practically nonstop schedule of public and private engagements in locations around the world. He’s written four best sellers, contributes articles to many national publications and, as a result, says The Financial Times, is “rapidly acquiring international guru status.” His hugely successful book A Whole New Mind described a shift from old-school, left-brain corporate culture to one that highly values more creative, right-brain thinking. His most recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that business needs a more human-centered approach to motivation. His comments here are excepted from a recent 360 webcast and additional questions he answered via email.

It’s been six years since A Whole New Mind explored the value of right-brain thinking in business. Are companies hiring more people with right-brain skills?

Yes and no. In the downturn and its aftermath, they haven’t been bringing on many people at all. But more broadly, I see a definite move toward hiring people who are whole-minded — who have both logical, linear skills, but also artistic, empathic, big-picture skills. For instance, IBM did a survey of 1,500 CEOs last year asking them the skill they valued most. Their answer? Creativity.

So right brainers will still rule the future?

In advanced economies, the sorts of abilities that used to matter the most were what we think of as quintessentially left-brain abilities, the spreadsheet abilities. They still matter, but they matter relatively less. It’s the harder to outsource or automate inventive kinds of abilities: artistry, empathy, big-picture thinking, the things that are most important now. There’s a pretty significant tilt in those directions.

What’s the best skill set: MFA or MBA?

A lot of the traditional MBA skills, the analytic skills that are not about coming up with new options but are basically about evaluating options and using algorithmic cognitive skills, those kinds of abilities are basically becoming commoditized. We can automate many of them and we can send them overseas to low-cost providers because Excel works just as well in Manila as it does in Toronto. Business concepts are being integrated into some fine arts curriculums now. Some MFA and BFA programs have things like the business of art and design, kind of an integrated left-brain, right-brain thing. People are realizing that the world is not segmented in the way that’s convenient for academic departments. It’s messy, and overlapping.

Are students looking for this kind of academic diversity?

In the U.S. undergraduate education there’s been a spectacular rise in the last 20 years of double majors and also of self-designed majors. Young people are looking at their education and saying, “I know what I want to study, I know what I’m interested in and I have a sense of how to prepare for the future.” Then they look at these academic departments which were created in 1880, and say, “Wait a second. This does not comport with how I want to do things. So I’ll study genetics and I sure as heck better study some philosophy, too. In fact maybe I need to concentrate in philosophy as much as I do in genetics and do a major in bio-ethics or something like that.” Most higher education institutions are behind on this. The pace of change in the academic world is three or four cycles slower than in the rest of society.

How did you decide to write a book about motivation?

One big trend we’re seeing is the poverty of certain kinds of motivators within the workplace. That is these classic kinds of carrot-and-stick motivators, what I call if/ then motivators: if you do this, then you get that. They’re terrific for the simple algorithmic, routine, rule-based work. But there’s 50 years of science that says they just don’t work very well for the more creative, conceptual, integrative work that most people are doing today. One of the goals of the book was to try to close the gap between what science knows and what business does.

How have companies responded to that effort?

We’ve gotten a really good response. There has been far less resistance to the central claim than I ever imagined. Lots of companies are trying FedEx Days (named for days that software company Atlassian sets aside each year for developers to work on whatever they want; they have to present their results the next day), rethinking their compensation schemes, and looking for ways to notch up employee autonomy. The challenge is the ferocious focus — especially in public companies — on the short term. Managers say to me, “These ideas are great. We’re definitely going to try them. But we’ll do that next quarter — once I hit this quarter’s numbers.” And then they say the same thing the following quarter.

You’ve said that conceptual work requires a different physical environment. How so?

Just as we need to find new motivational strategies, I think the same is true of physical workplaces. How do we come up with workplaces that go with the grain of human nature rather than some of our workplaces that were architected for a very different kind of work, and in many ways go against the grain of human nature? It’s really a question of needing some fresh thinking, saying, “Wait a second, let’s stop here and instead of trying to optimize the flawed system, let’s come up with an entirely new system. Let’s come up with that option C, or maybe it’s not even option C, it’s almost like option grilled cheese sandwich, because it defies the set of options that we have now.” That’s really where the action is.

What might “option grilled cheese sandwich” look like?

Think about how you work. You can do heads-down work anywhere. In the back of a cab, on the bus, in an airport, in your house, anywhere. The idea that you have to go into a physical setting called an office building to do heads-down work is somewhat silly. So when you go into the office and into a physical space, you want to get something valuable out of it. It seems to me that there are three kinds of valuable, necessary spaces: spaces for heads-down work, spaces for intentional collaboration, and spaces for inadvertent contact. The best workplaces somehow configure the environment so that there’s room for each of these spaces, and the movement of people to and from these spaces feels natural and effortless. Again, that’s easy to articulate, challenging to actuate. What you get value out of it in many cases is some kind of interaction, some kind of collaboration, the opportunity to deal with diverse people, and the inadvertent contact in all of that.

Many 360 readers are architects and designers — and work in studio environments. Could other businesses use that type of workspace?

Absolutely. In fact, I’m guessing that in a few years, white-collar working spaces will look a lot more like studios than like the grids of desk and cubicles of the man in the gray flannel suit. We need to give people the freedom to configure and reconfigure the spaces. Rather than offer one or two narrow options, maybe we should allow people to fashion and refashion their workplace in real time. There are also some clues in the workarounds that people do in reconfiguring space that isn’t necessarily built for collaboration. You go into any workplace and people will have reconfigured it to suit their needs. And I always think, man, what if we went with the grain of what they’re trying to do rather than oppose it? Part of it is letting people configure the space themselves in some way so they can work the way that’s best for them. Part of it is creating rich spaces for collaboration, because the best feedback and information on how we’re doing comes informally from colleagues rather than formally from bosses.

What’s your own work environment like?

For 14 years I worked in an office on the third floor of our house in Washington, D.C. But we moved recently and now I work in a small garage that we converted into an office. My commute involves leaving through the back door and walking about 15 steps. Both arrangements, while not perfect, are pretty darn good. They’ve kept me integrated into my family’s life, without having to work at the kitchen table.

Favorite tools for working?

I feel bereft if I don’t have my laptop and a high-speed Internet connection. But — and this surprises some of my digerati pals — I still use a heckuva lot of manilla file folders. And my labeler is one of my prized possessions.

You’re constantly researching, writing, and presenting about work. What do you do when you’re not working?

Sleep. Drink wine. Go for runs with my wife. Coach my son’s baseball team. Offer life lessons to my daughters, which they wisely ignore.

Can creativity be measured?

There are some metrics that measure creative thinking, but we should take those with a grain of salt. The idea that you can assign a single number to something like creativity is in many ways a fool’s errand. You’re always going to have to deal with some amount of ambiguity, that’s the nature of it. We can either have a legitimate ambiguity or a false sense of certainty. And I’ll take legitimate ambiguity over false certainty any day.

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