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How to Win Big

By understanding that our brains automatically crank up the perceived urgency of here-and-now problems, we can set these perceived emergencies aside for just a few moments in order to think big.
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How do you come up with the equivalent of the iPhone in your world? Or, like Lou Gerstner of IBM, how do you transform a struggling monolith into a dynamic, profitable business? Such Big Bang wins are not the sole province of uniquely talented or uniquely lucky individuals or organizations, but are achievable by anyone who understands a few basics about how the human brain identifies, then captures big wins.

As a neuroscientist and senior executive who's spent over thirty years in businesses as diverse as Aerospace, Entertainment and Intelligence, I've learned that secret to applying brain science to winning big is to employ a simple, three step process.

The first step is to learn how your brain, and the brains of those around you, execute hard wired scripts that blind us to big opportunities. For example, our brains, convinced that we still live in the ultra dangerous stone age, focus exclusively on near term threats and ignore long term opportunities. Thus, we spend all our time avoiding small, but immediate losses instead of nurturing long range wins. By understanding that our brains automatically--and without full justification--crank up the perceived urgency of here-and-now problems, we can set these perceived emergencies aside for just a few moments in order to think big.

After briefly putting aside "urgent" matters in order to focus on important ones, the next step is to imagine a long fuse, big bang future that is 5-10 years distant. The key to imagining a future that's radically better than the present is to shed light into perceptual and emotional blind spots that hide big opportunities that stare us in the face. For example, in its quest for efficiency, our brain filters out information that it doesn't expect to be important, in order to avoid wasting energy processing useless information. However, when we manage to force our brains to pay attention to the unexpected, the results can be spectacular. The telecommunications company, CMG, invented short messaging services (SMS) on cell phones when they looked for unexpected uses for the text messaging system that cellular carriers used to communicate maintenance information in their networks. Another key blind spot to overcome is our brain's natural tendency to ignore bad news. Computer giant Digital Equipment Corporation went out of business when it ignored the threat of PC's to its mini computer business, while Microsoft thrived when it embraced the "bad news" that the Web was about to supplant Microsoft's products as the killer app on PC's.

The final step to achieving long term success is to translate the big bang future you see back into the pedestrian present that the rest of the world sees. Neuroscience suggest that the best way to do this is to create futuristic experiences that stimulate the large swaths of brain that process sight, sound and touch. For example, auto companies create excitement about revolutionary new ideas in car design by building fully functional concept cars that maximally arouse not only visual, auditory and tactile parts of the brain, but that also speak powerfully to emotional centers in our brains. The throaty growl of a new car's engine appeals to our hearts as much as its fuel efficiency appeals to our logic.

All three steps to achieving long fuse big bang victories share one idea: they key to external success is to learn the internal workings of the brain, and to overcome its natural weaknesses.

Confucius summed this up best: "He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior."

Eric Haseltine is the Author of author of Long Fuse, Big Bang: Achieving Long-Term Success Through Daily Victories (Hyperion Books/July 2010)