Dr John Medina2Managing, recruiting, training and motivating IT staff was the biggest challenge I faced as an IT manager. It wasn't vendor management – they mostly wanted to make me happy. It wasn't choosing competing technologies, like Windows vs. Linux vs. Solaris servers – almost any choice had a path forward to success. Somehow it was people that perplexed me.

But I'm a person. Isn't everyone like me? Fortunately not. What an awful thought. Since I'm perfect, being surrounded by perfection would put me out of a job! (You may laugh now.)

I recently read a great book about people and their brains aptly called Brain Rules, by Dr. John Medina. Medina writes well and has an engaging speaking style. But best of all he uses the "brain rules" in presenting the material in his book. For example, he tells us that emotionally charged events are more memorable. That's just how the brain works. And then he tells a story that is emotionally charged and related to what he's teaching. Brilliant guy.

Can we apply this brilliance to IT staff? Absolutely. In fact some IT organizations are already applying these "brain rules".

inside your brainRule #1 is Exercise. Humans evolved on the savannas of Africa, where we had to learn about saber-toothed tigers and lions, lest we become lunch. This learning took place as we walked about, typically 20 km per day. We know exercise is good for the body, but aerobic exercise is also good for the brain. I saw this rule applied at many of my prior jobs. IBM Santa Theresa Labs had many trails around the complex, and they encouraged workers to use them. Bell Labs had numerous outdoor exercise facilities, including a famous bocce court we used on our breaks. Even little HFI had a ping pong table in its Boston office. Exercise facilities are common, but do managers encourage workers to use them? They should if they want to boost the productivity and intelligence of their IT staff.

Rule #2 is Survival. Our brain helps us survive in uncertain environments by solving problems while moving around (see Rule #1). My son, at age 5, drew a picture of his favorite place to be – walking in nature. There is something wonderful about being outside. John Muir put it well,"We need wildness". "My personal favorite quote from Mr. Muir is, "The mountains are calling and I must go."
Let's imagine the antithesis of outdoors in the wild. That would be indoors in a controlled, restricted environment. Sounds like an office cubicle or a classroom. Exactly! An office or cubicle is a terrible place for humans to be smart and creative. In short, we need to be outside cooperating collectively in a dynamic environment. Maybe that means holding meetings outside, or at least in the atrium. And I'm sure that Hawaii would love to have us fly down there for our monthly corporate getaways, as long as the threatening bosses and poisonous snakes are kept at bay.

Rule #3 involves Wiring Differences. Each person's brain is wired differently, even though we all have a visual cortex, a hippocampus and a pre-frontal cortex. The big pieces are the same, but the detailed pathways are different, even among identical twins. And those pathways develop at different rates. K-12 education ignores these differences, with fixed age and grade categories. After high school we are allowed, even encouraged, to follow our unique brain pathways by selecting a college and a discipline. Corporations, thankfully, pay attention to performance and usually ignore age. They have even created customization software to accommodate individual differences. Google remembers your prior searches and uses algorithms to provide individualized search results, even for identical searches across different users. Amazon's customization does the same for products. Software developers can complete technical certifications at their own pace. Microsoft lets you progress from Microsoft Technology Associate to Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer.

More brain rules next time. Until then, exercise more, get outside, and accommodate learning differences in your staff. I wish I had.

John Smelcer

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