Why Left-Brained Project Management Doesn't Work for Creatives

April 21, 2016
4 minute read


The human brain has two hemispheres, with very distinct differences. Each hemisphere lends itself to different strengths, and different people tend to emphasize one side over the other in their thinking.

This can cause some real trouble when people of different thought processes end up on the same team. In fact, using left-brained thinking while managing creatives (who often lean toward right-brained thinking and strategy) can lead to a lot of frustration and communication difficulty.

To understand and help address this problem, it’s important to first get a grasp of some of the differences in question. Remember that these are generalities and not universal rules.

Left Brain

The left side of the brain is primarily involved with logical analysis and linear thinking. Mathematics and computation are some other commonly known left-brain skills. Basically, a verbal explanation including reasoning and logic would be perfect for a left-brain type person. Highly organized, logical, and linear tasks often seem to come easier to someone who is left-brain dominant, as do numbers and analytics.

Because of this facility with orderly, linear thought, people with left-brain dominance can tend to be more organized overall. The natural inclination to linear sequencing will lend itself to keeping things in order, pursuing tasks methodically, and keeping to a generally fixed timetable and set of work habits. This doesn’t mean that a left-brained person will always be neat and organized but does mean that they’ll typically function better in a structured environment.


Right Brain

The right side of the brain is involved with creativity and imagination. It’s much more common for the right brain to employ intuition over logic and to think in terms of pictures, metaphors, and intuitive leaps. Discussion with a right-brained thinker may be more likely to rely on visualization or other non-verbal descriptions and explanations, as well as an emphasis on abstract concepts rather than concrete ideas.

Whereas the left-brained approach tends to generally appear orderly and logical, the right-brained thinker is often seen as more free-flowing and willing to employ holistic thinking for decision-making and planning. They may struggle to fit this way of seeing the world into a strictly organized and inflexible methodology.

Many people who have been left-brained managers of a right-brained employee or team quickly find that they need to change their perspective and plan of attack when managing a project.

How to manage the right-brained thinker

You probably didn’t even get to the end of the first sentence before you realized that the majority of creatives seem to fall into the right-brained category. Creativity, imagination, visualization, and a penchant for art are all striking character traits for creatives that are associated with this way of thought.

While this is great for producing quality creative results, it can be difficult getting to those results while still maintaining order, in a classical sense. It falls on the project manager to then get creative himself/herself. This can prove difficult, especially if you’re naturally left-brained, as most organized managers tend to be. To get creative, you don’t need to sacrifice order or logic completely. However, you may need to relax some of your approaches or spice up an otherwise boring task to get some buy-in.

Let’s suppose you’re trying to keep deliverable due dates aligned. You want work to be prioritized based on urgency so that you’re not left staring down a short deadline with nothing in hand. This can be done by adding a little color to your wall calendar. Try red for anything due within a week, yellow for anything due within two weeks, and green for tasks that don’t need to be finished before two weeks from today. You’ll have to update them regularly, but it takes your linear organization (from using a well-put-together calendar), and translates it into a visualization (color-coded tasks that can easily be referenced). Project management software may offer you the option to color-code tasks based on priority as well.

In order to secure the best results while maintaining the morale of employees who may find it difficult and stressful to fit into a highly organized mold, you may need to prioritize and make choices about your goals. If the end result is the most important thing, can you consider making sacrifices in the process to get there? Where items are truly not a requirement, consider relaxing a little bit to allow creative thinkers more freedom to solve problems and organize tasks in a way that works more intuitively for them.

Other considerations

You need your creatives to produce the quality items that they were hired to produce. And they need you to keep them headed in the right direction. Obviously, you don’t want to completely realign their thought processes; after all, you were hired to help keep things organized! But finding a compromise can make everyone happier and more productive.

The calendar example is one of many that combines your point of view with a twist that makes it much more accessible to those who have different brain characteristics. You’ll notice that we didn’t scrap the calendar that you already had constructed. We just added some color to make it easier to visually categorize tasks at a glance. Whereas a linear thinker could read through the calendar and decide what was important and what was not, a visual thinker may need the colors to help process the same information. Both arrived at an identical result eventually, and that is what’s most important.

Finally, you need to remember that you could both be arguing the same point when in a discussion that seems to be at odds. It’s just that differences in thought processes might lead to conflicting explanations. Be sure to ask for clarification if you’re unsure of what your creatives are saying, and speak as clearly as possible to keep them on the same page. There have been plenty of instances where a manager approached a creative asking about an issue on a deliverable, and the discussion took twenty minutes for them to realize that they were on the same page all along.


Related Posts

Run Better Projects Sign up for our free project management resources.

Get all our templates, tips, and fresh content so you can run effective, profitable, low-stress projects in your agency or team.