QUES­TIONS FOR Michael Platt

A neu­ro­science ex­pert de­scribes how our un­der­stand­ing of the brain is im­pact­ing busi­ness.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Tell us about your work at the Whar­ton School’s Neu­ro­science Ini­tia­tive.

Our lab tries to un­der­stand how the brain makes de­ci­sions and mo­ti­vates be­hav­iour. We use an ar­ray of tech­niques, in­clud­ing psy­chophysics, in­tracra­nial record­ings, brain stim­u­la­tion, phar­ma­col­ogy, eye track­ing, pupil­lom­e­try, brain imag­ing, ge­nomics, and epige­nomics to an­swer th­ese ques­tions. An im­por­tant goal is to trans­late some of th­ese tech­niques into wear­able de­vices that will al­low us to take neu­ro­science into both nat­u­ral and con­sumer en­vi­ron­ments. We be­lieve th­ese new ar­eas of ex­plo­ration can be trans­lated to im­prove busi­ness, drive new dis­cov­er­ies and ap­pli­ca­tions, and en­hance the ed­u­ca­tion of fu­ture lead­ers at the nexus of busi­ness and brain science.

Neu­ro­science re­search has pro­vided some im­por­tant in­sights about in­no­va­tive think­ing. Please ex­plain.

Over the past decade or so, we have dis­cov­ered that there is a fun­da­men­tal neu­ral net­work in the brain that serves to gen­er­ate ex­ploratory and cre­ative be­hav­iour. Ba­si­cally, its sole role is to get your brain ‘un­stuck’ from ruts and de­fault pat­terns of think­ing and be­hav­ing.

Early in the evo­lu­tion of life on this planet, our brains evolved the ca­pac­ity to re­peat be­hav­iours that led to some­thing good and to nar­row our fo­cus on those op­tions. The prob­lem is, when you be­come overly fo­cused on re­peat­ing some­thing that is rea­son­ably good, you will miss out on op­por­tu­ni­ties to find some­thing bet­ter to ex­plore. That’s re­ally what this newer brain cir­cuit is all about. We have found that stim­u­lat­ing this cir­cuit can lit­er­ally cause an­i­mals to move away from a de­fault op­tion and try some­thing new that they wouldn’t oth­er­wise have tried — and we pos­sess the ex­act same cir­cuit in our brains. This cir­cuit is mu­tu­ally op­posed with the brain cir­cuit that en­ables us to fo­cus on rou­tines and tasks, so there is a sort of ‘yin and yang’ go­ing on in there.

We now know that the rel­a­tive bal­ance of ac­tiv­ity in th­ese cir­cuits ‘sets your dial’ for how fo­cused and rou­tine your be­hav­iour is, or how ex­ploratory it is. And we’re start­ing to rec­og­nize that in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in the bal­ance be­tween cre­ativ­ity and fo­cus are as­so­ci­ated with dif­fer­ences in th­ese bi­o­log­i­cal cir­cuits.

Not sur­pris­ingly, there are im­pli­ca­tions for or­ga­ni­za­tions. The main one is that each per­son comes into the world with their dial set in a slightly dif­fer­ent place. Iden­ti­fy­ing where that dial is set for each in­di­vid­ual could be ex­tremely help­ful in iden­ti­fy­ing what peo­ple are go­ing to be good at, how they might tar­get their ca­reer path or what kinds of train­ing they might ben­e­fit from. I also think we can lever­age the neu­ro­science to en­gage in in­ter­ven­tions that can at least tem­po­rar­ily pro­mote re­lease from fo­cus and al­low more cre­ative and in­no­va­tive think­ing to oc­cur.

You have come up with four ways to stim­u­late this brain cir­cuit and in­crease in­no­va­tive think­ing. Please de­scribe them.

The first one is the idea of step­ping away. One of the worst things you can do for your in­no­va­tive ca­pac­ity is to sit at a com­puter punch­ing num­bers into an Ex­cel spread­sheet, or writ­ing emails. Th­ese are things that turn up your fo­cus but at the same time, they turn down your in­no­va­tive ca­pac­ity. So, step­ping away from your com­puter and get­ting up and walk­ing around — tak­ing breaks — is re­ally im­por­tant for stim­u­lat­ing in­no­va­tive think­ing.

Walk­ing it­self has been shown to in­crease cre­ativ­ity, be­cause it al­lows your brain to wan­der and day­dream — which is what re­searchers call ‘ac­tive prob­lem-solv­ing mode’. By step­ping away and re­mov­ing your­self from technology and other dis­trac­tions, seem­ingly un­pro­duc­tive time spent away from your desk can ac­tu­ally help you come up with your best ideas.

That leads di­rectly to the sec­ond tip, which is to com­pletely un­plug and do things that re­duce stress. Ex­er­cise and prac­tices like med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness are es­pe­cially good at al­low­ing one’s brain to re­lax and pro­mot­ing the health of the ex­ploratory brain cir­cuit. And we are find­ing that th­ese same ben­e­fits can be en­joyed while per­form­ing mo­not­o­nous ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties. Google Global CCO Lars Bastholm has ad­vised peo­ple to “Vac­uum the house. Get on an el­lip­ti­cal at the gym. Paint a fence. Any­thing that will al­low your brain to work in the back­ground.”

A third tip is to min­gle and en­cour­age so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. We know from re­search that the in­no­va­tion/ex­plo­ration cir­cuit is very ac­tive when we in­ter­act with oth­ers. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause it ac­tu­ally re­quires a lot of ex­ploratory think­ing to pre­dict how oth­ers are go­ing to re­spond to what you say or how you be­have. We also know that cre­at­ing so­cial bonds with oth­ers is re­ally im­por­tant for phys­i­cal and men­tal health, and that it re­duces stress. At IDEO, col­leagues get to­gether for lunch on a reg­u­lar ba­sis (think ‘soup on Fri­days’, ‘tea and cook­ies on Tues­day’); and at Vir­gin Air­lines, groups of col­leagues go on out­ings to sport­ing or mu­sic events. Lon­don-based PR Agency PHA Me­dia lets its em­ploy­ees make the call them­selves: They ac­tu­ally pro­vide a quar­terly bud­get for staff to use for ac­tiv­i­ties of their choos­ing— whether it be paint­balling or at­tend­ing the theater.

The fourth tip is to ac­cept the bi­o­log­i­cal re­al­ity of in­di­vid­ual vari­a­tion in the bal­ance of ex­plo­ration and fo­cus, and struc­ture your teams ac­cord­ingly. That means putting peo­ple who are cre­ative types to­gether to work on your most in­no­va­tive chal­lenges, and putting oth­ers to­gether who are re­ally good at car­ry­ing out tasks. This was very aptly demon­strated by the re­struc­tur­ing Google did a few years ago when it cre­ated an um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion, Al­pha­bet. It now has highly-in­no­va­tive di­vi­sions like Google X and other

Seem­ingly un­pro­duc­tive time away from your desk can ac­tu­ally help you come up with your best ideas.

di­vi­sions that are more ori­en­tated to­wards car­ry­ing out func­tions and keep­ing them highly ef­fi­cient, like Google Mail, Google Pon­der and Google Search. Th­ese are things that they’ve been do­ing for a long time and they just want to main­tain and im­prove them — which does not nec­es­sar­ily re­quire new ways of think­ing.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Google ac­tu­ally has its own neu­ro­science team, as do Face­book and Ama­zon. All the big tech com­pa­nies are think­ing re­ally hard about this.

How can com­pa­nies em­brace neu­ro­science to assess peo­ple?

Tra­di­tion­ally within busi­ness, peo­ple have re­lied on the My­ers-briggs test or the Big Five per­son­al­ity test. The prob­lem with those ap­proaches is that they are based on self-re­port­ing, and peo­ple don’t have good ac­cess to the re­al­ity of what is go­ing on in their brain. Of­ten, they want to an­swer in the way they think they should. You can ad­dress this bias by giv­ing peo­ple tests like the Al­ter­na­tive Uses Test, which asks peo­ple to come up with as many uses as pos­si­ble for com­mon house­hold ob­jects like a brick or a pen­cil within a lim­ited time. This and sim­i­lar tasks ac­ti­vate the ex­ploratory and cre­ativ­ity net­work.

One thing we’re try­ing to do in the lab is to find other kinds of bi­o­log­i­cal mea­sures that might pro­vide im­proved pre­dic­tive power for iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ples’ tal­ents. If we can in­cor­po­rate things like brain­waves and mea­sures of pupil di­la­tion in re­sponse to cer­tain kinds of ques­tions, that would add to our abil­ity to ac­cu­rately pre­dict what a per­son will be good at. We’re very ea­ger to work on this with com­pa­nies in the field, be­cause the science is al­ready solid in the lab.

One day soon, will neu­ro­log­i­cal test­ing be a part of ev­ery hir­ing and pro­mo­tion process?

I think so. There are eth­i­cal and le­gal con­cerns that come with any ap­pli­ca­tion of bi­o­log­i­cal or health data to the hir­ing process, but I think as peo­ple be­come mo­ti­vated by the de­sire to ad­vance and find the right po­si­tion within an or­ga­ni­za­tion, they will want to take ad­van­tage of this op­por­tu­nity — as long as ev­ery­thing is done in a, pri­vate and se­cure way.

What I don’t think will hap­pen is that peo­ple will need to get an MRI snap­shot of their brain to iden­tify where they ought to be plugged into an or­ga­ni­za­tion. The science isn’t that strong yet. But I do be­lieve we can de­velop bet­ter mod­els for the se­lec­tion process that achieve much greater pre­dic­tive ac­cu­racy, be­cause the mod­els will be in­formed by neu­ro­science.

What’s next for your re­search?

We not only want to help busi­nesses make great hir­ing de­ci­sions, we also want to help them cre­ate a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment in which peo­ple can thrive. I truly be­lieve that brain science has enor­mous po­ten­tial to in­form — and trans­form — busi­ness.

Google has its own neu­ro­science team, as do Face­book and Ama­zon.

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