Six brain-based ideas for better innovation

Posted on February 21, 2014. Filed under: Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, has been thinking a lot about the neuroscience of innovation. She includes a round up of some of the latest thinking on the subject.


Artist: Masha Vereshchenko

Artist: Masha Vereshchenko

Survival Mind v Innovation Mind

There are two main areas where biology affects innovation.  First, the human brain is built to resist change.  In order to conserve the status quo, the brain generates feelings of discomfort when we try new things or attempt to change.  This is counterbalanced by other systems, driven by dopamine, that reward exploration and discovery.  As humans in business, when our ‘survival mind’ is activated we instinctually focus on keeping ourselves in the safe zone.  When our senses are heightened by a threat, we are driven by our unconscious minds to hunker down in the status quo in order to prepare for the next threat.  We freeze in place, something that is not conducive to innovation.

According to Janet Crawford, a pioneer in applying neuroscience to improve business performance, we are pattern-making creatures.

From the time we’re born, our brains are busily encoding any useful and repeating relationship between objects and events to which we’re exposed.  Since the brain possesses very little capacity for conscious attention, it uses these patterns to automate our responses to the environment as much as possible.

It’s our conscious mind that creates new ideas and focuses on the future,  but when we’re in our ‘survival mind’, our unconscious is in charge.

Artist: Paul Thek

Artist: Paul Thek

It’s a balancing act, however.  When we experience too much stress and threat, the tendency is to retreat into habitual known responses. When we feel sufficiently (but not overly) secure, we venture into new territory.  The prefrontal cortex, the area resting just behind your forehead, is key to innovative thought.

Only by leading our teams out of ‘survival mind’ and into their ‘innovation minds’ can new ideas emerge. By creating an environment that reduces threats while fueling creativity, we can quiet the unconscious mind and empower the conscious mind to innovate – again and again and again.

How to Foster Innovation Mind

1   Take care of your brain

Crawford argues that  the areas of the brain involved in innovation are particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation, poor diet, lack of social connection, and stress in general. Fatigue management expert Thea O’Connor weighs in on the benefits of working in tune with our rhythms rather than fighting against them, not only to feel more energised and less fatigued, but to open the pathways of creativity and innovation.

2   Step Into Your Innovation Mind

By understanding how to calm our unconscious minds and simultaneously fuel our conscious innovation – we can power creativity within our teams. For example, simply modelling the innovative behaviour of others can help bring about a mind shift.

Address the brain’s need for certainty by pointing out the challenges, the risks, the downside potentials of remaining in that very status quo. Then visibly reward those who step into new thinking. The combination will motivate teams toward new and conscious solutions. Ask a lot of questions: By questioning the knowns of the business, eliminating sacred cows, and probing into the new and innovative, you can inspire a out-of-the-box thinking.

Artist: Pauline John

Artist: Pauline John

3   Expose yourself

Think fresh by exposing yourself to new and different ideas, disciplines, cultures, and environments.  There’s a tendency in business to hunker down, focus, and try to get as much done as possible in as short a time as we can.  If we can’t think of a compelling reason for something to happen, we consider it a luxury or waste of time.  Great innovations happen when there’s a large pool of seemingly unrelated content to pull from. Set time aside to cross pollinate even if the immediate benefits aren’t obvious. As Crawford says: “The more diversity in the system, the more “weeds” will flourish and the greater the likelihood that some of them will be useful!”

4   Invite others

People within a system often think and see in much the same way. But when you invite others to participate, anything can happen. People outside the system bring fresh neural patterns. Unless there are practices that allow diverse elements in your ecosystem to intersect, and unless you’ve created the safety to prompt people to speak up, vast amounts of insight will remain undiscovered.

5   Develop your attentional intelligence

Linda Ray, a pioneer in building intelligent enterprises, coined the term ‘attentional intelligence’. According to Ray, by mindfully noticing where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be, you are setting up the scaffolding in your brain to allow innovation to occur. Daniel Goleman’s extensive research supports this:  use your conscious mind to gather data, make connections, and focus. Then, let the brain idle. It’s in the downtime after thorough preparation that innovations happen. In this way you can draw on the extensive array of patterns the unconscious mind has formed, without being in it’s thrall.

6   Play!

It’s in play that we often gain access to our vast unconscious warehouse of neural information. Allow relaxed time for serendipity.



. .
Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure. 



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[…] Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, has been thinking a lot about the neuroscience of innovation. She includes a round up of some of the latest thinking on the subject. ____________…  […]

[…] Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, has been thinking a lot about the neuroscience of innovation. She includes a round up of some of the latest thinking on the subject. ____________…  […]

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