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  • GK VanPatter

Revisiting Hemispherics

Updated: May 15

Part 1 of 2 [Repost from Humantific Journal]

Welcome back Humantific readers. This week, we are happy to be doing some catch-up dot connection sharing in reference to a subject that is near and dear to us in Humantific practice and that is cognitive balance, cognitive inclusion.

In the firehose of books and papers being published related to the subject of innovation it’s difficult to keep up with even a fraction. Identifying/sharing which ones have the potential to have significant impact on real world innovation enabling inside organizations takes extra effort that there is not always time for..:-) 

In this post we point to two such useful books; one that was published in 2009 and the other interconnected, decades earlier in 1966. 

Ian McGilchrist‘s “The Master and His Emissary”  2009 is a rather monumental contribution to numerous subjects. His work is super relevant to innovation enabling practice today.  

With the publishing of The Master and His Emissary” a broad, deep perspective arrived to help us all reconsider some of what had become unfashionable in innovation-enabling circles.

Just when you thought that brain hemisphere considerations had received the death knell and were no longer relevant, Ian McGilchrist comes riding into town, with years of scholarly research to challenge the tossing out of those considerations, as well as redesigning them. 

“Forget everything you thought you knew about the difference between the hemispheres, because it will be largely wrong.”

Oddly titled, “The Master and His Emissary” is the story of the relationship between the structure of the brain and its influence on western culture.

True to the dynamics of community complexity, not everything arrives in perfect sequence. The appearance of “The Master and His Emissary”  is a little like a missing, big picture historical perspective arriving out of sequence, to underpin and add flesh to several already existing subjects that are active every day in leading innovation enabling practices.

While not agreeing with every detail in the McGilchrist book, we have been delighted to see so many connections between the heavy lift of “The Master and His Emissary” and the already in-progress subjects of Organizational ChangeMaking, *Behavioral Ambidexterity, Think Balance, Complexity Navigation, Inclusive Innovation, Organizational Harmonics and even Innovation Methodology Design.


At a time when many are questioning how the world has managed to arrive into its current fuxked-up, on-fire state, “The Master and His Emissary” serves up a deeply rooted, highly charged, hemispheric explanation. 

The author makes a convincing case that our societal systems are heavily tilted by left hemisphere orientations, limitations, values and logics. That basic premise is wrapped in years of research and deep historical perspective spanning centuries; “The Ancient World, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, The Modern World”, etc. 

The book findings might make some folks a little uncomfortable in its call for significant change regarding the understanding of and respect for what the hemispheres are capable of, geared for and up to. Why are some humans among us geared for open-ended questions, scanning broadly and holistic perspectives, while some are not? It’s certainly a good moment to take another look.

For those of us in innovation enabling practice it is not difficult to see how that left hemisphere imbalance premise presented in “The Master and His Emissary” is also present in many organizations struggling with changemaking and innovation. 

Numerous dot connecting moments occurred there for us in reading McGilchrist but this is a dynamic that has, in several forms, been known in the broader innovation enabling community for numerous decades.

Some scholars of innovation enabling history might know that in 1966, UK based psychologist and researcher, Liam Hudson (1933-2005) published a rather astounding little book, based on years of his research, originally entitled "Contrary Imaginations: A Psychological Study of the English Schoolboy". Hudson was building on the work of American psychologist JP Gilford (1897-1987) who wrote "Creativity" in 1950, "The Nature of Human Intelligence" in 1967 and was a signficant figure in the early CPS (Creative Problem Solving) community.

Focused in the arena of education, Hudson studied the *behaviors, attributes and outputs of young students using Guilford's lens, not of hemispheres, but rather of divergence and convergence.

Hudson was interested in the unvarnished truth regarding how divergent oriented and convergent oriented students exhibit diverse *behaviors and imagine/create vastly different outputs. Utilizing research capture instruments such as the "Uses of Objects", "Zebra Crossing" and "Meanings of Words," the findings of Hudson's "Contrary Imaginations" turned out to be a rather head spinning mixture of surprising, funny and stunning.

Although the Hudson book is much more steeped in the language of creativity and innovation and the McGilchrist book flies at 20,000 feet, often citing philosophers, it's not that difficult to see connections across the work of Hudson and McGilchrist.

Cutting to the chase for our readers; to draw upon a model well known to us at Humantific, what McGilchrist is suggesting in considerable detail is that many factors have contributed to western society, creating the equivalent to what we refer to in this 2013 organizational change related diagram as a Company 2.

According to McGilchrist we have, in western society, all the strengths and weaknesses of a Company 2 model, with predisposition towards “digging the same hole deeper” as we try to decipher how we got to where we are and change our ways….:-) It's a not uncommon organizational dynamic encountered by ambidexterity focused changemakers.

Suffice it to say that in a parallel universe to McGilchrist's focus on"the relationship between the structure of the brain and its influence on western culture”, our Humantific interest remains on making connections between changemaking objectives, cognitive styles, cognitive imbalance, organizational ambidexterity, inclusive culture, adaptive changemaking methods and organizational performance.  

“The Master and His Emissary” makes for an excellent, not perfect, primer for all of that, for those interested in the deeper, wider connections. In particular we loved McGilchrist's "dual problem" common to all animals story; the need for scanning - while eating, as it maps directly to ambidexterity.

Some years ago we figured out how those various dots were connected, how the pieces can be loosely assembled and reassembled in order for folks to get the bigger systemic picture, rather than swimming around in random unconnected pieces.

In the organizational ambidexterity part of our Humantific practice we talk with organizational leaders about embracing complexity, dialing the building blocks up or down, managing the asymmetrics, so to speak, depending on many variables. An organization is rarely just in one place.

This brings us to the central difference between the emphasis of “The Master and His Emissary” and Humantific practice. What McGilchrist is pointing out and advocating is essentially a flip-the-script strategy. Recognizing/surfacing that presently the left hemisphere is the "Master" and the right hemisphere the "Emissary", he advocates a 180 degree flipping of that script.

This differs from the Humantific perspective. Fully conscious that the right hemisphere divergent oriented team among us could often use some stronger strategic representation, we make it our mission, not to privilege one over the other, but rather to focus on how they can better work together. In real world innovation contexts the hemispheres are emissaries for each other. The "mastery" that we are working on with orgnizational leaders is how to set aside egos, acknowledge differences and work together to better address complex issues.


As The Master and His Emissary” continues to gain momentum, the danger is that some eager folks might super-over-simplify its message, as a protest banner, as a call for the privileging of the right hemisphere (Company 3) rather than a rebalancing of both. The good news is that in his public talks, perhaps recognizing the need for that clarity, McGilchrist does point out that both are needed as in: "We need degrees of both of these things all the time." Lets not lose that less obvious layer of this useful book.

The Master and His Emissary” can more clearly be interpreted as a direct hit on and challenge to those consultant folks out in the marketplace selling convergent thinking (decision-making) support as innovation and changemaking. Thanks to this McGilchrist, work those days are surely numbered. 

Central to the message within "The Master and His Emissary” is the notion of why this shifting has become so important now. The book spells out that need is there due to the burning platform becoming the state of the earth itself. Continous privledging of left hemisphere logics and values will not get collective us to the other side of the mess that has been created, towards renewal and regeneration. Overall "The Master and His Emissary” is a great kick-in-the-butt book that builds on the more table-top findings of "Contrary Imaginations".

Hope this is useful Humantific readers. Big thanks to JP Guildford, Liam Hudson and Ian McGilchrist for their valuable contributions to these subjects.

In Part 2 we can explain more about some of the connections we see and what we do to operationalize them in practice. Happy to connect with others working in these areas.

END Part 1 of 2.

*Behaviors: In the context of innovation enabling we consider "behaviors" to be inside social/work practices, not all of which are formally recognized. Enabling Psychological Safety in organizational contexts involves surfacing the notion that the current state of some innovation related social/work practices are operating counter to stated intentions and require redesign. Pointing out/discussing contradictions between behaviors and stated intentions is typically part of actionizing Strategic Psychological Safety.

Previously Published:

Image Credits:

Cover from "The Master and His Emissary”, Ian McGilchrist, 2009, Humantific Collection

Cover from "Contrary Imaginations", Liam Hudson, 1966. Humantific Collection

Innovation Harmonics Framework from Humantific, 2013-2024

Ambidex Continuum Discussion Framework from Humantific, 2010-2024



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