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Why It's Tough for Bankers to Innovate: They're Left-Brained

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As a community banker for 20 years, I am quite familiar with many of the regulations, laws and best practices in banking.  It's been my experience that bankers operate inside the proverbial "box" most of the time. As we age, our brains become increasingly more ingrained into familiar patterns and routines.

In strategic planning sessions we're often admonished to "think outside the box."

This jargon tends to ring a bit hollow, as typically no specific formula for how to accomplish this feat is suggested.  (Or, perhaps in my 30 years of corporate work, I missed that session.)

Neuroscientific research indicates that it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of our existing mindsets. Fortunately, however, it is still possible to train our brains to think differently without either dropping acid or traveling to India.  (If you've read Steve Jobs' biography, you'll understand.)

Over a dozen years ago, while chairman and CEO of a community bank, I discovered and applied some unconventional thinking processes.  I had always been a fan of Benjamin Franklin's Moral Algebra process, more commonly known as the "pro and con" ledger. Learning to tap into the more creative right hemisphere of my brain, however, produced an entirely different type of insight, enabling me to think in a unique manner about both the problems and opportunities facing the bank.

After stepping down at age 50 from the job of a bank CEO, I had the time to pursue my primary interest:  learning more about innovation, intuition and what makes people successful.  Ultimately I discovered answers in the fields of both neuroscience and psychology.  My research included reading primary scientific sources, holding discussions with many esteemed scientists and conducting over 200 interviews with test subjects.  The results are contained in a book published this past spring.

One of the fascinating payoffs of my research was discovering the underlying reason why it is more difficult for us to "think outside the box."  Our patterns and routines acquired over the course of decades have virtually confined our thinking to the box, or more precisely, to a more left-hemisphere dominant style of analyzing and processing information.

My research led me to the work of Dr. Roger Sperry, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his discovery that each hemisphere of the brain is independent, with a separate set of attributive functions.  His findings help explain the logical, linear world in which most of us live.  The right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, resulting in the analytical, mathematical, logical, linear thinking of most of the 92% of Americans who are right-handed. Conversely, the left side, controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, is now commonly known as the source of artistry, music, intuition, innovation and problem-solving skills.

I believe it is appropriate to consider revolutionizing our thinking about meetings, problem solving and strategy at banks, armed with the results of my research.  There is a great deal of value in disrupting conventional thought processes, breaking through complacency as a means to thinking differently about the bank.  

There are many ways to do this. Ask different constituencies and create new questions and/or approaches. Conduct a different type of meeting to break through the "group think" that can result from working on initially vocalized ideas, especially if those ideas come from higher-level executives or respected contributors. Ask participants to write answers first to all the questions. Unexpected ones such as "What would we do differently if we were starting the bank from scratch?" can stir things up

If we want to take another leap, we can take the time-tested steps of changing the venue, adding music and inviting different and fresh perspectives. More importantly, if we want to be on the cutting edge of innovation, we can find ways of tapping into the right brain of the participants.

Why not apply what's been learned in the combined fields of neuroscience and psychology over the past 50 years?  We can obtain the same insights in Sperry's initial work to help us to become more innovative and thoughtful at work.

Once again, in banking, where it is difficult to differentiate one bank's products and services from another, it's useful to find ways to break through the status quo and what may be decades-old approaches to problem solving and strategizing.  My experience has been that most strategic thinking and problem solving sessions consist largely of planning, with far too little time devoted to thinking and innovation.  It's time that bankers get beyond the box.

William A. Donius is the author of Thought Revolution:  How to Unlock Your Inner Genius, and a strategist at Endeavor Management.  He served as Chairman and CEO of Pulaski Bank in St. Louis until 2008.     

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Comments (4)
I work for Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy, and my colleague Brian Gillespie wrote a blog post entitled "Service Design Thinking And The Innovation of Financial Services". This post discusses how emerging trends show consumers are looking for alternative ways to manage their finances, whether through new tools or completely new institutions. You can read more here: http://continuuminnovation.com/part-1-service-design-thinking-and-the-innovation-of-financial-services/
Posted by Emily Paisner | Tuesday, October 30 2012 at 12:05PM ET
I highly recommend reading Bill's book on this topic: "Thought Revolution: How to Unlock Your Inner Genius." There is a link to it in this story or simply search on Amazon.com. Enjoy!
Barbara A. Rehm
Editor at Large
American Banker
Posted by brehm | Tuesday, October 30 2012 at 12:37PM ET
Nice article. And you are correct that much of the information to help trigger innovation has been around for 50 years.
The challenge is "the Ben Franklin moral algebra process" because there are some major size banks with no morals at the top. They only listen to radio station WIIFM (What's In It For Me). To a degree, the consolidation of banking has removed much of the incentive to be "Innovative" for the major banks. The "bleeding edge" of innovation is left for non-bank vendors and medium size banks. And the top leaders at smaller banks are too consumed with compliance (thanks to the major banks sins) to devote much time to thinking. Perhaps this article will inspire someone. If you want an area to think about - try debt management solutions. Help customers get out of "bad debt". If you do not know the difference between "good debt and bad debt", you may be in the wrong profession.
Posted by frankarauscher | Tuesday, October 30 2012 at 12:47PM ET
Or simply hire more left-handed bankers since we southpaws are the only ones in our right minds.
Posted by calvindjohnson | Sunday, December 01 2013 at 9:52PM ET
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