Local detail

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind includes a reference to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on gender differences in thinking.  Baron-Cohen’s work suggests that there are brains that favor systematizing and brains that tend to empathizing.  The differences tend to sort themselves by gender; more males seem to have brains that favor systematizing and more females have brains that favor empathizing.  (Pink and Baron-Cohen are careful to be clear that this is distinct from the notion that there are “male” and “female” brains.)

Baron-Cohen describes systematizing thinking: “systematizing involves exactness, excellent attention to local detail, and an attraction to fixed rules independent of context.” Empathizing involves attention to the larger picture, context, and history.

Pink’s point throughout the book is that we need both, for most demands of the current economy and technological age.  The very day I read this section, I got to see the need for both in action, in the basement of my house.  Here’s my anecdote:

“We’ll just cut a small hole in the concrete here by the wall,” the contractor explained.  I remembered a friend’s story about clouds of concrete dust resulting from just such a hole.  “Will there be dust from sawing the concrete?” I asked.  “Aw, no,” he said.  We’ll just bust it up with a sledgehammer.”

Half an hour later an earsplitting whine erupted in the basement – the unmistakable call of a very, very powerful saw.  I got to the basement stairs to investigate just as the cloud of dust began to rise and this man emerged.  “Just had to cut through the pipe,” he told me.  A moment later the smoke alarm sent its piercing cry through the house.  I wrinkled my brow in surprise and then remembered about systematizing.  Local detail.  He was busy paying attention to the hole, and the pipe, and had forgotten, or never considered, that he was in a house, with detectors of carbon and lungs and ears and upholstery.

He did a great job, on that hole and pipe.  By the time he was done, I could barely see where he’d opened up the floor.  And he was gracious and cheerful throughout.  When my ears stopped ringing and the dust finally, literally, settled, I couldn’t help thinking that we could really get a whole lot more done well, smoothly, and with minimal fallout with both kinds of thinkers on every team – someone to watch out for the local detail and someone to keep an eye on the context. We hear a lot about the importance of working as a team, and being part of a group, but it’s critical to remember that teams don’t work just because you gather up a bunch of people.  They work when the capacities of the team members are diverse and complementary.