Jul 262011

The latest findings in neuroscience have broad implications for all aspects of business, from product design to leadership. Hot topics include human task performance, learning, motivation, attention, and memory. Deep insights from this research can lead to the creation of better software. For the IT professional, this will change the way software is designed and developed. It will also change how software teams are assembled and managed.

Software-enabled tasks are astonishingly diverse — reporting an electrical outage to the utility company, comparing investment portfolios, analyzing blood test results, trading commodities, ordering books, or even playing Angry Birds. As diverse as these tasks are, each draws on the attention, learning, motivation, and memory of its users.

Today’s neuroscience research reveals the role of neurotransmitters in attention, learning, and memory formations. Dopamine, for example, is critical to “rewarding” the brain. Often referred to as the “Goldilock’s Neurotransmitter,” people must have just the right amount of dopamine to stay on task. Too little dopamine and performance, learning, and motivation suffer. Too much dopamine and performance deteriorates.

So what does this have to do with software development? Software can be developed with an understanding that there are three components of attention: alerting, orienting, and executive. The alerting function is the hypervigilant old part of the brain — the part that kept the caveman from being eaten by predators. This part of the brain is sensitive to any change or novelty in experience. Stimulating it is an essential first step in the attention process. The best web developers have already discovered that novelty keeps their audiences coming back. Stagnant websites quickly drop off in visitors.

The orienting part of the brain helps focus attention. This midbrain function is also involved in physical sensing. Thus, music, sound, or tactile interfaces (iPhone, iPad, etc.) are congruent with the second component of attention in the brain.

The executive component of the brain involves the functions that are being called upon when people are making choices, solving problems, and following directions. These higher-order prefrontal cortex activities are the behaviors involved in task completion. This is the result we seek from our software when users perform a task with our products; however, there are some challenges. The brain habituates to routine experience. Consequently, attention becomes harder to sustain, which impacts performance. Taxing and demanding activities are stressful and deplete the brain of the neurotransmitters needed to sustain attention. Thus, designing user interfaces that are graceful, stressless, novel, and variable can improve user and corporate performance. Use of neuroscience will change the usability game, and smart companies will outcompete the clueless competition.

Regarding the management of software teams — or the intense problem solving required for complex system failures — IT leadership depends on the “aha! moment” when deep insight occurs and a developer or team reaches the breakthrough that crushes the problem or the competition. The latest brain research has revealed the anatomy of the aha! moment. Preceding deep insight is an electrical wave coordinating distant areas of the brain, a rush of neurotransmitters resulting in a compelling certainty that the new thought or vision is exactly right. The person experiencing the aha! moment is excited and absolutely sure of the correctness of the idea, yet does not have a stepwise analytical conclusion. He or she is merely “certain.”

Brain activity at the moment of insight has been documented in the lab using functional MRI (fMRI) imaging. Certain conditions favor the emergence of insight. One condition that favors the aha! moment is “positive affect” — that is, happiness. Many in the software world have seen the explosion of creativity that occurs following laughter, social moments, and playfulness. Numerous Silicon Valley companies have backed into this dynamic and have built environments conducive to creativity and innovation. Such environments (think Google) are loosely structured, allow experimentation, promote healthy food choices (good for neurotransmitters), and limit stress levels.

We have known for a long time that creative people tend to be right-brained. This is confirmed by research, as the “process” of insight is known to be driven by the right brain. Researchers can even predict who will be more likely to achieve insight. The brain process of insight is now well documented and can be enhanced in our management of software teams.

So what to do with this knowledge? First of all, here is what not to do, if you want your team, organization, or company to excel in innovation:

  • Do not turn leadership over to left-brained people. Particularly the finance staff. The joke that accountants know the cost of everything and the value of nothing is unfortunately not a joke. The finance staff will cut out anything deemed frivolous, such as training, celebrations, and social activity. We all know that such actions kill employee motivation and creativity, but now we have hard scientific evidence to support what common sense already knew.
  • Do not manage through FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It is bad for neurotransmitters; it exhausts the chemicals in the prefrontal cortex, and executive functions such as judgement and problem solving become impaired. Extended periods of stress actually cause the dendrites in the brain to die, resulting in diminished performance.

Here’s what to take away from this knowledge:

  • Foster bright, creative, stimulating environments. Strategies made to enhance creativity are human-friendly. Include playfulness. Promote exercise and recreation — good for neurotransmitters, good for positive affect, and great for team dynamics.
  • Encourage experimentation — like Google does. Give people some time to work on ideas that are highly motivating to them.
  • Encourage right-brained activity — art, music, and meditation. If creativity is essential for a project, select people who are drawn to right-brained activities in their free time.
  • Perhaps, most important of all, keep cool in a crisis and keep the team cool. When trying to solve a complex network or software outage, create breaks. Ensure people are eating frequent, small, but nutritious meals. Try to introduce some camaraderie within the team.

Lynne Ellyn

Lynne Ellyn is a Fellow of the Cutter Business Technology Council and a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business Technology Strategy practice. She recently served as the Senior VP and CIO at DTE Energy


  4 Responses to “The Neuroscience of Leadership”

  1. […] team noodzakelijk achtten.Met dit in mijn achterhoofd las ik het artikel op de Cutter Blog – The Neuroscience of Leadership – waarin wordt beschreven dat recent onderzoek naar de hersenen tot praktische en bruikbare […]

  2. Nice article.

    If we take this analogy, a ship on high-sea in a challenging weather might struggle a lot to reach the destination with efficient crews but without a “stimulating” captain! For any creative outcome whether to solve a problem or overcoming (any) challenging situation, we need a “vibrating” mind and a vibrating mind is achieved thru’ vibrating brain – a vibrating brain is (in my opinion) possible in a conducive environment and a “leader” plays a very important role to create a conducive atmosphere.

  3. Good information about how the brain works! Leaders need this knowledge to communicate so they connect with their audience, and so they may be capability brokers (knowing what their team is capable of, not just what they do). Bravo!

  4. […] O artigo pode ser acessado em The Neuroscience of Leadership […]

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