Brain-Friendly Leader Blog

Innovation: when ideas meet and mate

Great innovations often seem stunningly simple and obvious…after the fact. Innovation happens, according to Matt Ridley, “when ideas have sex.” But why don’t more interesting ideas find ways to attract each other and mate? Why is it so hard to see things through fresh eyes? In this post we look at the biology that constricts our ability to generate novel thought and the role of diversity as a key driver of innovation.

The brain is equipped with very limited ability to take in and process new information, and our environment always contains more than we can possibly attend to consciously. In the first few years of life, in fact, the brain’s main job is to sort through the overwhelming amount of sensory data bombarding us and to find recurring patterns. These patterns, encoded as neural networks, give us maps for navigating the specific environment and culture into which we’ve entered. We can then respond automatically when we detect the same conditions without using our precious conscious attention resources.

Think about the number of things you do without thinking, but which at one time you needed to learn. Shoes have a left and right foot and they should (for most of us anyway) match, as do socks. When it’s sunny, you don’t need a raincoat, but you may need one when it’s cloudy. Door handles operate in a particular way, and similarly shaped ones generally operate alike. We learn to sort through the environment selectively, paying attention to the details and patterns that are useful and disregarding inputs for which our brains have not found a use.

As the brain finds the patterns that will allow us function on autopilot, it organizes them into neural networks, grouping related concepts for efficient recall. You can see this phenomenon at work in a variety of psychological studies. If I give you a cue word, for example “dog,” your response times in finding related words like “leash” and “bone” in a word maze will be faster than it will be for unrelated words like “ocean” or “anchor.” For people whose keyword was “sailboat,” however, the result would be the reverse. We’ve all had the experience of getting a new car or learning a new word and suddenly seeing and hearing it everywhere. This phenomenon, called priming, reflects a warming of the neural circuits related to whatever is in the brain’s focus of attention, thus ensuring that we will notice related stimuli in our environment.

The trap here is that the brain becomes constrained to pay attention to that for which it already has a pattern. We become blind to things that exist in plain sight because our neural patterns are directing our attention elsewhere. In order to notice new things, we need to expose ourselves to thinking and cross connections that are not bound by our pre-existing networks. In other words, we need diversity.

Diversity takes many forms, from the commonly understood people diversity to diversity of experience and environment. Is your team, event or organization full of people like you? Do they come from the same race, gender, socio-economic, age group or educational background? Do they think like you do? Diversity of ideas is limited to the neural networks and experiences shared by those participating in the conversation.

Diversity of environment is an often overlooked dimension. The ideas available to us and the patterns that we create depend on the environmental inputs available. Are meetings always held in the same way and in the same location? Do people mix informally and share ideas? We live in a work culture which forces many of our most creative people into stultifying work environments where they spend their days in a repetitive haze of the same meetings, reports, and activities. Cost cutting measures dictate that team “retreats” are now held on site in the same meeting rooms used day in and day out. A conversation about a problem while walking on a sunny beach will generate different perspectives than one that takes place in a monotone generic meeting room. The thoughts present for us after walking down a street in Mumbai will be different than those generated after checking email for the umpteenth time at our desks.

Steve Jobs intentionally designed environmental diversity into the buildings at Apple. Prototyping and design rooms allow employees to explore ideas in a hands on environment. Even bathrooms are strategically located, leading employees to walk through an open atrium where chance encounters with others from outside their group are likely.

Diversity of experience is a third dimension. Do you and your employees have a rich variety of life experiences upon which to draw? Innovation (and great art) often happens at the cross section between seemingly unrelated concepts. The deeper the pool of life experience we have to draw upon, the greater the potential for novel cross connections. We often hire with a predefined idea of what job preparation should look like and view down time pursuits as a luxury, or worse, as time wasters. True innovation demands that we spend some portion of our time exposing ourselves to new ideas and experiences foreign to our pre-existing education and ways of being.

Diversity has a dark side, though. We are designed, in part, to feel safer with those who think and act like we do. It’s easier to collaborate with people with whom we have a great deal in common. Ancient programming from millennia of life on the African Savannah tells us to mistrust those who look or act differently than we do. As social animals, we are innately concerned with status and seek to connect ourselves with others who “fit in” socially. Often, however, the people with the most creative ideas aren’t the most socially adept or practiced at seduction! In fact, it may be the very lack of concern for fitting in socially that allows them to think so far outside the norm.

Research by Jamil Zaki, etal, shows the high degree to which we are designed to conform to the social opinions of our peers. So strong is this tendency that we instinctively filter our thoughts for social appropriateness and acceptance without ever being conscious that we’ve done so. It requires a high degree of trust and group safety for people to relax enough to let ideas flow without attempting to prejudge their value. Nature’s deck is stacked against rapid and continual innovation. If we truly want innovative cultures, we have to intentionally load the deck in our favor. It’s a tall order, but here are some starting points:

1. Promote diversity of experience. Hire for it. Encourage it.
2. Promote diversity in people. Hire for it.
3. Create diverse environments. Take walks. Have off-sites in non-traditional locations. Provide space for play and for informal interaction.
4. Don’t filter ideas prematurely
5. Make failure acceptable. Fail fast and learn.

While diversity gets a robust mix of ideas to the party, it clearly isn’t sufficient to have them mate. For that to occur, the people with ideas, as well as those with the ability to bring them to market, have to form trusting relationships and take risks together. In future posts, we’ll look at the conditions and skills necessary for trust and risk taking to flourish.

Emotion: Friend or Foe?

Emotion has a bad rep in the world of business.  Clients regularly request my help in “getting emotion out of the way” so they can make good business decisions and foster better collaboration.  Not too long ago, a financial advisory company proudly proclaimed to me that they do better in the stock market because they base decisions solely on logic. Executives and investors spend long hours listening to endless presentations of data, in the belief that their final decisions will be based on conscious rational consideration of all that’s been put before them.  The neurological truth, however, is far more complex. In the final analysis, all decision-making is emotional.

The role of emotion in decision-making is determined by many complex variables.  One way to look at the brain is as a massive pattern detection machine.  We continuously bring in information from the environment and attempt to find recurring patterns that will allow us to predict the responses that are most favorable to our survival.  Our ability to hold information in consciousness (called working memory) is extremely limited and there is far more information present at every moment than we can ever consciously attend to.  Patterns help us sort through all that information and pay attention to what is most germane in order to survive and thrive.

Those patterns are linked to emotions. “Feelings” can be thought of as the brain’s way of letting us know, based on all the patterns we’ve stored to date, what path of action is likely to yield the optimal result.  Emotions, in this sense, are nothing more than elegant decision-making shortcuts.   While emotions have limitless nuance, in the final analysis, they simply tell us whether to move toward or away from a particular thing, experience or future state.

A rich history of neurological case studies shows that orbital frontal damage leads to an incapacity for making cogent decisions on even the most mundane matters.  The brain can crunch the information in a cool detached manner, but is unable to produce the feeling that says, “pick this one.”  We rarely stop to think about the number of unconscious decisions we make throughout our day or why, for that matter, we make them the way we do.   Decisions are made based on a combination of unconscious individual patterns acquired from a lifetime of experience, evolutionary patterns (often adapted for small nomadic tribal life on the plains of Africa) and that aforementioned extremely limited resource called working memory.

In some cases, attempting to base decisions solely on logic can lead to surprisingly suboptimal results.  In an experiment with MIT business students, one group was given extremely detailed reports on companies, while another group was just given their stock prices. The group who “bet blind” made better investments than those with copious information, who fell into classic analysis paralysis and the inability to decide what was and wasn’t important.  For those relatively inexperienced students, lacking a lifetime of patterns to guide the data sorting process, the quantity of information overwhelmed the brain’s ability to crunch the numbers effectively.

In another elegantly designed experiment, Professor Baba Shiv  (then at University of Iowa and currently at Stanford) and his coauthor, Alexander Fedorikhin (USC), asked participants in two separate cohorts to memorize a two-digit or seven-digit number.  During the course of the experiment, all participants were offered the opportunity to choose a snack: a slab of rich gooey chocolate cake or a bowl of sliced fruit.  Overwhelmingly, the seven-digit cohort preferred cake, while the two-digit cohort chose fruit.  The fully occupied working memory capacity of the seven-digit cohort responded with choices based on a primal emotional instinct imprinted by life on the African Savannah:  Yum!! Chocolate cake…lots of calories…good!  Those whose conscious capacity had not been overwhelmed by data distraction were able to recognize the impulse for cake, but override it with a healthier choice.

When we speak of “not being emotional,” what we are really talking about is developing strategies to short-circuit the often, but not always, poor decisions produced when we are operating from a position of stress, threat or emotional overwhelm.  Equally poor, are decisions made by leaders who lack the richness and wisdom provided by full access to their emotions and those of their community.  Emotion, used wisely, connects us to what we care about and has profound power to motivate and catalyze. Rather than marginalizing emotion, intelligent leaders recognize the imperative for developing emotional literacy and maturity.  Our patterns, whether personal, cultural or evolutionary, can be flawed.  When they are, we need to be able to recognize the “toward” or “away” signal that is leading us astray and be equipped with strategies to override those errant impulses.


Welcome to the Brain-Friendly Leader

Understanding and befriending your biology is life changing.  I’ve been applying neuroscience research to leadership and organizational culture for over a decade and have seen first hand the difference comprehending the underlying drivers of behavior and experience can make for executives, their teams, and their organizations.  This blog is a place where I will share observations about how biology informs work in the 21st Century.  It is intended as a platform for information, exploration and occasionally for dispelling the misinformation about the brain that has become rampant as this conversation gains popularity.

Anything related to the brain or rockets seems to be our cultural gold standard for intellectual prowess.  In the late 1990’s, when I first started bringing neuroscience into my work in organizations, it was a hard sell for many clients. The idea of using neuroscience as the basis of leadership development seemed impractical, overly theoretical and frankly, intimidating.

Fast forward to today.  Neuroscience frequently makes the cover of mainstream publications like Newsweek and Time Magazine, which just last week featured brain research on optimism.   The field of neuroscience is exploding due in part to the widespread availability of advanced scanning technologies.  Burgeoning areas of inquiry have given rise to new academic specialties, such as Social and Affective Neuroscience, which studies emotion and the brain in interaction with others.

Nascent findings carry implications that in many cases upend our cultural assumptions about what it means to be human, and what, at our core, makes us tick. Are we fundamentally self-interested, as classical economic theory would suggest?  Or are we, at a neurological level, also built for altruism? Is reason the height of human function?  Or do emotions have an equally elegant logic and essential wisdom?  Do we have hidden programming which guides our behavior, leading us to sometimes unwittingly do things we consciously abhor?  And if so, and it’s hidden, what can we do about it?  Are some people wired to take more risk than others?  What, then, are the implications for how we choose our leaders?

The questions are endless and the emergent information has far reaching implications for all aspects of modern life.  I look forward to sharing my thoughts and adding to the growing conversation!