Drawing a lesson in Corporate Politics from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
Over the past few months, I have been taking some socially distant, intellectually stimulating, and nice walks with one of my dear friends, a super-smart Engineer who has invested his whole career working for a few of the Bay Area’s high-tech companies.
We recently talked about some of the struggles he faced with his last project: early on he identified a number of critical technical issues that would have affected the project schedule (spoiler alert: they did), and he went about to do his best to help course-correct the situation (spoiler alert: it did not work).
Besides enjoying my friend’s company, I was particularly fascinated by his story because it was filled with People and Project Management “do’s” and “dont’s”. It almost felt like working again on one of those “Harvard Business Cases” that were so inspiring and motivating as an MBA student.
But this is not a Harvard Business Case. The whole story is very complex, it is not my intention to report all the facts and subtleties (there are many). I will focus on one of the key “ah-ah!” moments that my friend and I reflected upon, and what triggered such realization.
The big struggle came early on.
My friend’s team owned a critical component of the project so he started working tirelessly to raise the level of awareness (and urgency) within his own team.
This did not sit well with his direct manager (as you may already imagine this became one of the pillars of my friend’s misfortunes).
In addition to work on his own tasks, my friend became closer to other groups. In the process, he became an advisor to the different managers who had a stake in the project’s success and who praised his efforts.
Fast-forward to today: his prediction was accurate (the project has suffered a huge delay), but his efforts were not rewarded.
My friend is very authentic and has a strong work ethic.
Politically, however, he is not in a good spot: besides trying to recover from a strained relationship with his manager, none of the other managers came to his aid.
Unfortunately, we do not learn Politics in Engineering School, that “exercise is left to the engineering practitioner”.
It took us a few walks to analyze the managerial aspects.
Some were obvious. One was not.
Learning How to Draw: Right Brain, Left Brain
Roger Sperry (1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) discovered that the left hemisphere of the brain was responsible for language understanding and articulation, while the right hemisphere could recognize a word, but could not articulate it.
Sperry’s studies inspired Betty Edwards, a Bay Area artist, who wanted to make drawing accessible and rewarding to as many people as possible.
I bought Betty’s book several years ago, and in 2018 I attended one of her workshops, which was led by her son Brian Bomeisler, an exquisite artist and teacher.
Throughout the workshop, Brian taught techniques that allowed me to become better at drawing what my eyes perceive. Which is very different from what my brain says I am looking at.
For example, let’s say that we want to draw the nose of a subject who stands in front of our eyes.
The moment we think “nose”, our left brain comes up with its symbol: if we let that happen, we will most likely draw the symbol of a nose — a far cry from what we are actually seeing and trying to draw!
Tale of Two Brains
Right-brained people are supposed to be artistic and spontaneous, while left-brainers are literal and analytical; in…
The point of the workshop’s techniques is to give room for the right hemisphere to do its job by limiting the left hemisphere from… photobombing our work!
When the workshop started, we were given a mirror and we were asked to draw our self-portrait.
This is what mine looked like.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” — Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
One of the many revelations of the workshop was the discovery of “Negative Space”: this is the space around and between the subject(s) that you want to draw.
The way I look at trees, at their branches, at their leaves has changed forever since the day I learned about “Negative Space”
This concept (and many other “right-brain” techniques) can also be used to “see” (and become aware of) things that our left hemisphere is preventing us from perceiving correctly.
On day 5, it was time to apply the techniques that Brian taught me, this was the result:
Negative Space and Metacognition
The drawing workshop was a transformational experience. I always tried to integrate everything I learn: instinctively I may have realized early on that in doing so I was able to better retain information. But the real value came later when I became conscious of the multiplier generated by creating and analyzing connections across multi-disciplinary topics.
I was able to learn how to draw a self-portrait in less than five days.
What was I missing before?
The following picture may inspire a few answers.
True, I did not know what I did not know when I started the workshop.
But, we can also think “Negative Space”: instead of keep looking at and analyzing the subject in front of us, what can we learn by shifting our attention to its contours, to what’s outside of it?
I think this was the major contributor to my newly improved drawing skills.
My Friend has been played
I don’t know if this is about age or wisdom, but in my circle, we don’t give advice — unless one asks for it.
We are free to ask all the questions we want and to contribute with “what-if” scenarios in a safe and non-judgmental way.
In this circle, this is how we accelerate our collective learning experience.
At some point during the last conversation with my friend, I made a conscious effort to look at the outside of the boundaries that we have been using, and something dawned on me. Something that we did not talk, nor think about. Something that was so foreign, it was outside the contours of our conversations… it was time for one last question.
“Does any of the other managers who became your friends have anything to gain to make your manager look bad?”.
My friend immediately asked where the question was coming from. I just mumbled “negative space”, and gently asked him to elaborate: was that a possibility?
It turns out that this is something my friend did not consider until I asked. Sure enough, one of the managers whom he befriended is the ambitious type who had the most to benefit from my friend’s manager failure. From this realization, it became easy to uncover some interesting people manipulation techniques that this very “skilled” manager used on my friend. Needless to say, this manager quickly discarded my friend as soon as he accomplished his objective.
We don’t know what we don’t know
“Negative space” helps us formulating the right questions, so we can learn more about the situation and the people involved.
I use “negative space” a lot in my day-to-day job: I use it for preparing account or product strategies, I use it to coach my Team, I use it before and after calling Customers.
My coach Phil Johnson (https://www.linkedin.com/in/philipjpjohnson) suggests considering “negative space” as “the distance that emotional intelligence creates between our ego, who we think we are, and who we really are which is indescribable using thoughts or words”.
Clearly, Authenticity and Honesty are prerequisites for the successful adoption of this approach.
My friend will be ok. We spoke the other day, he said that the new level of awareness obtained with the exercise we went through will speed up his recovery and improve his standing in his organization.