Some years ago, I bought a book by Betty Edwards, entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This coincided with my initial interest in the impact of the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of organizational change, which has since found its way into Informal Coalitions. This post takes a brief excursion into the world of the artist as set out by Edwards, with the aim of drawing out some new insights for leaders into the underlying dynamics and performance of their organizations.
The idea of negative space
Based upon the then emerging research on the left-right duality of the brain, Edwards maintained that the rational, logical, analytic, linear and culturally-honed characteristics of the left brain prevent the non-rational, intuitive, synthetic, holistic and culturally-suppressed skills of the right brain from developing. As a result, people are prevented from seeing, in a way which would enable their inherent drawing abilities to surface and flourish.
To overcome this, she introduced a number of techniques designed to ‘switch off’ the left brain and allow the right-brain skills to come to the fore. More profoundly and more relevantly in the current context, she discussed the notion of “negative space.” Negative spaces are the empty areas around the positive shapes (people and objects) within the format (length and width of the drawing surface). These three elements combine to form the composition of the drawing or painting that is being worked upon.
She suggested that, as a result of the dominance of left-brain education and cultural conditioning, people concentrate on the “things” and ignore the spaces around them when attempting to draw. She pointed out that we have been trained to recognize, name and categorize things from early childhood. As a result, when asked to draw a chair, say, we immediately call to mind our stored images of chairs and our left-brained understanding of what a chair should look like. We then fail to see the specific shapes before our eyes and draw a representation of our already stored, abstract images. The outcome is, for most of us, disappointing; and our view that we can’t draw is reinforced. In contrast, Edwards argued that if care and attention were lavished on the negative spaces the forms would take care of themselves. By drawing ‘nothing’ you would at the same time be drawing the positive shapes; and, since the left brain cannot recognize and name these negative shapes, it ‘switches off’ and leaves the job to the right brain
A metaphor for organizational dynamics
This counter-intuitive focus on the negative spaces between the solid forms provides a metaphor for those ‘unseen’ aspects of organizational dynamics that conventional management wisdom tends to ignore or downplay. Traditional management education and practice focuses on the ‘solid objects’ of strategy, structure, plans, objectives, problems etc. Issues are identified, prioritized, analysed and dealt with in a rational, methodical, cause-and-effect way; plans are drawn up, targets set and results measured; new processes are designed, championed and implemented. And yet, more often than not, organizations remain disappointed at the outcomes, with fewer than one in three change programmes delivering what they set out to achieve.
Convinced that a better way is just around the corner, organizations adopt fad after fad, in their search for quick-fix solutions; but the ‘holy grail’ of peak performance remains elusive. As Edwards might say, our left brains 'know' what good management looks like so we stop looking at what is actually in front of us. This is not surprising, given that we have been schooled from our early management years to believe that the route to success is to act rationally, remain ‘objective’ and measure anything that moves. Metaphorically, we know what a ‘chair’ looks like - that, after all, is what we’re paid for!
If, though, we were to focus on the ‘negative spaces’ (or underlying organizational dynamics) which link the issues, problems, strategies, objectives etc into a unified whole, we might be able to deal with the latter more effectively. In other words, we need to "draw on the other side of our assumptions," as Edwards puts it. That is, we need to see the apparent 'nothingness' of the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of organizations as the very 'shapes' that we as managers must pay particular attention to. Unless we do this, we will continue to ‘draw’ metaphorical chairs that don’t turn out right, even though we are convinced that we know – without looking – how chairs are supposed to look!
As Edwards comments, the idea that ‘nothing’ could be important goes against the grain in Western culture and against the preference of left-brain, rational thinking for dealing with ‘real’ things that can be named and categorized. Quoting the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, however, she points out that Oriental cultures have no such difficulty. Oriental thinkers do not see the spaces as being empty but "full of nothing." They are willing to allow nothingness to be ambiguous and unknowable, in the sense that it need not be named or otherwise specified.
As managers and/or consultants, we’ve been trying to draw the ‘solid shapes’ with limited success for many years. We need instead to change our perspective by looking at the negative spaces or ‘nothingness’ in between. If we can perceive and interpret these in ways that make sense to people, we will better 'draw out' the object(ive)s which we are traditionally called upon to deal with. Paradoxically, the outcome is then likely to be more "realistic," in the sense that it will more faithfully reflect both the formal "things" and the underlying organizational dynamics through which these are brought into being.
This is probably enough for now. I shall explore this metaphor a little further in a future post - or two!
Other posts in the series: