« Doing management the wrong way | Main | »

May 31, 2022

Success is the result of creative thinking and intuition, not scientific systems.

By Ed Smith



My experience of elite sports supports that argument: without insight, “process” and “methodology” don’t hold much value. Insight is the first domino. It is the quality that the greatest coaches and strategists possess above everything else. They originally see the game, allowing them to perceive how winning happens in ways that others cannot. They are like poets and scientists in this respect: they apprehend the game more clearly and form a superior understanding. Often their insights are bound up with making surprising connections or seeing analogies that others miss. “The creative mind,” in Jacob Bronowski’s phrase, “is a mind that looks for unexpected likenesses.”

Ironically, so much time is wasted studying the “motivational tactics” of great sports leaders (invariably personal and impossible to imitate), which entirely misses what’s actually inspiring and motivating about them: their gift of apprehension, the clarity of their insights, the freshness of their vision. A great coach might or might not be articulate, but they are certain to have a philosophical talent for seeing through to the essence of the game.

McGilchrist’s arguments have implications for how organizations that claim to pursue excellence –  whether businesses, schools, universities or hospitals – should perceive and arrange themselves. He argues in favor of wide-ranging thinkers who have the imagination to apprehend what’s needed, and then the perspective to know which levers and methods are best suited to bringing the project to fruition. Instead of trying to turn life into a machine, adapt your thinking and approach to life.

The primacy of insight and perspective also explains why organizational charts – designed so that accountants can apportion salaries and bureaucrats can file “appraisals” – are not only often fantastical but counterproductive. By encouraging a delusion of mechanistic order, they cut against creativity and genuine collaboration.

“The idea of a Gestalt is central to this book,” McGilchrist writes, “by it I mean the form of a whole that cannot be reduced to parts without the loss of something essential to its nature.” This idea is also highly relevant to team sports. A team must and can only be a collective and living whole. The whole is always different from the sum of its parts. That is true even in sports that (superficially) appear to be a series of independent events, such as cricket and baseball, as well as sports that have intrinsic flow, such as football and rugby. (It is a myth, as the cliché has it, that cricket is “a team game played by individuals”. It is, in fact, an individual game played by teams.)

McGilchrist attacks the notion that a collective endeavor can be chopped up, the elements polished separately, and then subsequently reassembled into a superior whole. He sees it as inappropriate in the human sphere. Indeed, it isn’t even true for machines. Russell Ackoff, the American systems thinker, asked his students to imagine a lecture hall filled with the best component parts drawn from every car manufacturer (the best brakes, the best suspension and so on). If all the best bits were then assembled, would it create the best single car? Of course not. The way a car fits together is, to a significant degree, the majority of what a car manufacturer does.

McGilchrist puts it like this: “I suggest that relationships are primary, more foundational than the things related: that the relationships don’t just ‘connect’ pre-existing things, but modify what we mean by the ‘things’.” In this context, I don’t think McGilchrist is using “relationships” to mean “how people get along with one another socially”. He means “how they relate to each other fundamentally in the creation of the whole”. This connects with the point made by Juanma Lillo – the mentor of Manchester City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, and who is now assistant manager at the football club – when he warned against criticising players without appreciating the context: “My mentality is interaction and relation. If you say, ‘Let’s evaluate the right-back,’ I say, ‘But who is alongside him? Who is in front of him? Nearest to him?’” (Lillo also said, “You can’t take an arm of Rafael Nadal and train it separately.”)

Of course, everyone wants to believe that success can be turned into a system – because a system can be copied and profitably “scaled up”. But there are no systems that can deliver success without intelligent steering by good thinkers. A good process can filter out errors (which is very useful), but it cannot yield insights.

Further, and this theme runs throughout the book, insight, and creativity can only be controlled and willed up to a certain point (even among people who have the talent). Believing there is a complete process for creativity is fundamentally anti-creative. “Brainstorming is practically the antithesis of creativity,” McGilchrist argues, reassuring if you feel looming despair every time someone picks up a marker pen in front of a whiteboard and says, “let’s brainstorm”.


Success is the result of creative thinking and intuition, not scientific systems.

Posted by ACASA on May 31, 2022 at 04:51 PM in Books | Permalink


Post a comment