Creative navigation

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I’m re-reading a book by Betty Edwards: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Dr Edwards is an art professor. Her PhD research investigated the psychology of perception, drawing (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the Nobel prize-winning work into the so-called ‘split brain’ by Roger Sperry, begun in the late 1960s. In brief, Edwards teaches her students to draw by switching into ‘R mode’ (non-verbal) instead of ‘L mode’ (usually the more dominant, language-based hemisphere of the brain).

Edwards quotes Paredes and Hepburn (1976) to illustrate the two broad ways of perceiving the world. These researchers cite the example given by anthropologist, Thomas Gladwin, which contrasts the approach taken by European and native Trukese sailors to navigating between the small islands dotted in the huge Pacific Ocean.

Before setting sail, the European begins with a plan that can be written in terms of directions, degrees of longitude and latitude, estimated time of arrival at separate points on the journey. Once the plan is conceived and completed, the sailor has only to carry out each step consecutively, one after another, to be assured of arriving on time at the planned destination. The sailor uses all available tools, such as a compass, a sextant, a map etc, and if asked, can describe exactly how he got where he was going.

In contrast, the native Trukese sailor starts his voyage by imaging the position of his destination relative to the position of other islands. As he sails along, he constantly adjusts his direction according to his awareness of his position thus far. His decisions are improvised continually by checking relative positions of landmarks, sun, wind direction, etc. He navigates with reference to where he started, where he is going, and the space between his destination and the point where he is at the moment. If asked how he navigates so well without instruments or a written plan, he cannot possibly put it into words. This is not because the Trukese are unaccustomed to describing things in words, but rather because the process is too complex and fluid to put into words.

The European style worked just fine, as long as nothing unexpected happened (like a sudden storm or killer whales fancying a snack). However, for most people, and certainly most organisations now, life just doesn’t work that way. The ‘left-brained’ logical approach has its place. But people tend to forget to use their whole brains in navigating challenges.

It seemed to me that the right-brained approach of the Trukese sailors is a great metaphor for creative problem-solving. It also provides a very neat description of leadership, and a great way for me to explain my approach to coaching. Oh yes, and it also helps you draw.

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