To answer that and similar questions (What is … engagement, ownership, culture change etc.), we can use ‘root cause’ tools like 5Y’s or 5W1H to dig down through the language we often take for granted.
Instead of asking Why? 5 times, let’s ask What is…? 5 times and see where it takes us.
What is … Innovation?
ANS: ‘The act of introducing something ‘new’, or ‘original’, which ‘breaks into’ a market or society,
usually identified as ‘phenomena, which are important in some way’…. At base, it’s a new human ‘Act’, ‘Action’ or ‘Activity’ in a given set of circumstances / situation.
2. What is … an ‘Act’ which is new or original?
ANS: An act, as a Verb, is to ‘do something’, to ‘take action’. As a Noun, it is a thing done, a ‘Deed’. It can be seen as a physical thing, mechanical, or a human thing, ‘behaviour’. New, is that which hasn’t been done before.
3. What is … behaviour?
ANS: the way in which an animal or person behaves (does something) in response to a particular situation or stimulus:
4. What is … a response?
ANS: an excitation of a nerve impulse caused by a change in conditions or particular event;
5. What is … a nerve impulse?
ANS: A nerve impulse is an electrical signal that travels along an axon, which can be considered electro-chemical activity in the brain (CNS – Central nervous system) and / or the body (PNS – Peripheral Nervous System).
Simply put, Innovation is about ‘Thought, Word and Deed’ … in that chronological order.
To answer the question ‘What is Innovation?’ we might say … “Innovation is a set of sensory & neural responses to prevailing conditions, which combine in the brain to create a novel idea or solution to a perceived challenge. This solution is transported from the brain, through the body, into the world, triggering new sensory and neural experience for self and others.”
And for me, THAT is the interesting bit. As leaders, we can now ask, what ‘prevailing conditions’ encourage the kind of neuronal, axonal signals which lead to those new ideas (thoughts) which are sufficiently exciting and beneficial to motivate the individual to perform ‘New acts, important to society or markets’. i.e. What ‘prevailing conditions’ are required to encourage innovation? Or more accurately, what prevailing conditions are required to encourage innovative thought, which will be acted upon.
And that takes us well and truly into the realm of ‘Soft Skills’, which consistently prove so ‘hard’ in a world that currently teaches best-practice, organisational control and leadership with little if any link to neuroscience or biology.
To truly understand ‘prevailing conditions’, which are good for the brain to be innovative, we need to think about the wiring and firing in the brain.
We need to consider neurological conditions, like FEAR. Fear can see the glucose energy converted from our food to fuel the brain directed to the defence mechanisms and away from the thinking bits! This ‘emotional state’ (neurological condition), inhibits our capacity to think logically in the absence of any fuel for the ‘thinking’ parts (pre-frontal cortex) …. This is one among many such neuro-biological facts, which can now be shown to directly link to terms like ‘Innovation’. Fear = lack of thinking, Innovation requires thought; quid pro quo, if people are suffering any form of fear at work (in respect to targets / hierarchies etc.) they will not be innovative. Easy as 1,2,3!
We are fortunate today to be able to use neuroscience and psychology to understand such issues. In the absence of this knowledge during the past centuries of industrial development, such facts have been largely over-looked in the popularised approach to leadership. The ideas around ‘being the boss’ have unfortunately evolved in the prevailing conditions created by a Keynesian economic, capitalist, industrialised world, without any understanding of the brain and how to get the best from it.
In these ‘prevailing conditions’, leaders have been trained and encouraged to exercise their social position and power to focus on the outputs, (P&L / Forecasting etc.) more than they focus on or understand the inputs i.e. the conditions required if the neurological responses of their reports are to lead to actions which in turn lead to ‘solutions’ and ‘improvements’ which provide maximised profits and minimised losses.
It’s all a little bit backwards from a ‘human factors’ point of view. It is often the case that conditions generated by current ‘best practice’ couldn’t work much harder to oppose the natural capabilities of the brain to innovate, even if they’d been purposefully designed to do so!
E.g. Output targets in a business are typically projected in time, requiring assumptions are made; this can lead to cognitive dissonance throughout organisational departments and hierarchies, while KPI’s put people under duress from cost accounting practices increasing the release of stressor hormones and provoking fear of failure and rejection based responses. While this is going on, ERP systems impose often nonsensical controls over a human’s freedom to act to force conditions like learned helplessness. (Each of these points require a much deeper understanding as provided through Duxinaroe training and development services). All in all, in the absence of such knowledge, we do a pretty good job of creating business environments in which people are conditioned NOT to think, while being provoked at a neuronal level to make physical mistakes and errors of judgement.
We might say we’ve systematised our attack on the capabilities of the brain!
Assuming the same few ‘Human Factors’ we’ve mentioned here, at a neurological level, are understood in terms like ‘Culture Change’ we can assume Kotter & Heskett’s Landmark Study, which focused on ‘Corporate Culture and Performance,’ across 207 large U.S. companies, in 22 different industries, over an Eleven-year period, shows the potential outcomes it is possible to unlock, when this level of understanding exists in leadership teams.
*One must assume ‘culture change’ includes an understanding of what ‘prevailing conditions’ are required to get the best performance from people, including a level of neuro-biological understanding.
We might note, these results were achieved by leadership teams with a focus on a broad term like ‘Culture change’, before we had access to the neuroscience we have today – these results were achieved by those who intuitively understood how to create conditions in which ‘brains perform best’. (Leaders Jim Collins might refer to as ‘Level 5’ leaders).
So, when do brains ‘Innovate’?
Let’s first consider the times when novel ideas and solutions pop into our heads, and look at the prevailing conditions we’re in when this happens, (conditions you might note, that we don’t often replicate at work!).
We’ve all experienced ‘Ah ha’ moments (also considered Gestalt, Insight, Epiphany etc.). For many, these moments of realisation come when we’re driving, cycling or walking a regular journey and we can’t remember how we did the last few miles or few hundred yards, or when we’re vacuuming the carpets, or falling asleep or waking up. We have ‘insights’ in any ‘condition’ in which our conscious thought processes are put on stand-by, i.e. when the pre-frontal cortex isn’t troubled by active conscious thought, allowing a deeper level of thinking to be given a little ‘head-space’. A hot bubble bath is another place this can happen, hence the story that Archimedes jumped from the public bath’s shouting ‘Eureka’ when he recognised water displacement could be a method of measuring density – the realisation came when he was relaxed in the bath! Not when he was in a facilitated workshop or under the duress of KPI’s and targets.
The science we have access to today allows a deeper understanding of this. Contrary to popular belief, our brains do not rest when our body does, at least not all areas of the brain and not in the way we might assume. When we sleep or relax significantly, such that we’re functioning on autopilot, our ‘conscious’ brainwave patterns (From the frontal lobes) slows down from ‘Beta’ to ‘Alpha’, but the electrical activity in other regions of the brain can increase significantly.
We go from Beta to Alpha brainwave patterns when we go from fully awake and consciously thinking to a relaxed state. We move from Alpha to Theta brainwave patterns when we get drowsy. In Delta phase, we are either sleeping or deeply sleeping (Non REM or REM sleep).
It is in the SMR / Alpha / Theta phases that we have an epiphany and lose the last 5 miles when driving. We are alert and able to respond to changes in the traffic, so not ‘Drowsy’ in the typical sense of the word, but we are in a ‘special place’ in our heads, a bit like ‘meditation’. Driving is the modern alternative to a mantra or repetitive noise made to induce the same 'meditative’ state in terms of neural activity, and it provides our brains a chance to piece things together that might span decades of experience.
The interesting thing is that the areas of the brain which increase in activity in sleep include the inferior frontal gyrus, the parahippocampal gyrus, the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, as well as the brainstem and cerebellum. (sheesh! the language that comes with this stuff is enough to put anyone to sleep eh?)
It is increasingly accepted that the processing of memory traces in areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus point to the role of sleep in memory consolidation.
Similarly, in a meditative Theta brainwave state, the brain is often able to go to work on the individuals latest experience, cross-linking past experience to present conditions, testing theories from experience over decades and drawing conclusions which often emerge as an ‘Ah-HA! Moment. We can think of the brain in this state, like a massive laboratory of collaborating scientists, carrying out experiments and testing theories to find mutually beneficial solutions (via an algorithm known as Hierarchical Temporal Memory).
Now, when it comes to leadership and innovation in a commercial environment, leaders can unwittingly create conditions that are completely counter to these human brain needs. Alarmingly, this is often in pursuit of so called ‘Best Practice’! The introduction of Controls (ERP) or Time-Lines, Critical Paths, Financial targets and an array of performance related KPI’s can create ‘prevailing conditions’ in which the individual can suffer a negative emotional response, potentially linked to common-all-garden, everyday psychological conditions such as a ‘Fear of failure’ and / or ‘Fear of rejection’ on a chronic basis. This keeps us in a beta brainwave state where innovation is near impossible.
The reason we don’t hear of such ‘Chronic’ issues, is because most psychological and neurological studies which hit the headlines revolve around trauma and significant stress, not the common-all-garden conditions 80-90% of the global adult population find themselves in at work each day.
However, Under such chronic fear based (mundane) stresses, there is a complex process going on, far to complicated to detail in this short observation, but suffice to say, glucose energy is diverted to the Amygdala (Emotional Cortex), away from the pre-frontal cortex and the low level adrenaline / cortisol release into the blood-stream can damage a substance called Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), especially over time. This acts like fertiliser for the brain and it’s essential for new neurons to grow (Neurogenesis) in response to new experience, perceptions, imagination and memory consolidation. (Which is a far too shallow summary of how we learn, adapt and memorise). The type of stressful environments we create at work, therefore inhibits the potential for brains to be ‘innovative’ and inhibits the speed of learning from experience realised in our teams. Damage to cells on a broader body-scale, are also probable
following prolonged exposure to stressor hormones, leading to heart conditions and cancer in many cases.
In this way, we not only detract from the potential for the brain to get into an innovative (Semi-subconscious) state, we also reduce the capacity to problem solve consciously, increase the potential for social issues to manifest where people are more prone (neurologically) to react emotionally, rather than rationally, generate issues around the principles of ‘Learned helplessness’, provoke discomfort in respect to cognitive dissonance and damage people at a cellular level, not to mention disconnecting those who have to ‘perform’ to meet the goals and ideals of the organisation from the organisations strategic vision due to the stress they are under; thus creating conditions, which fundamentally undermine business critical traits like ‘Ownership, engagement and empowerment’.
Ignorance of this leads to external experts coming into a business to introduce ‘Change programs’, to address ownership, engagement, empowerment, autonomous teams, culture change and innovation’ by following the same implementation and performance rules that the incumbent leadership team demonstrates.
That is not to say there is no need for control. Some boundaries and rules provide consistency, which can lead to comfort, in line with old sayings like ‘Congruence leads to confidence’. When people are comfortable, they can be innovative, but make them too comfortable and they can become complacent – it’s a neurological and psychological juggling act, that links into issues around emotional maturity, greed, responsibility … and ultimately a philosophical definition of ‘Good’ … it’s a bloody hornets nest once you start looking into it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rewards to be had for the effort.
There is a lot to this ‘human factors’ approach to Leadership. Control, leading by example, fear, process, systems, the theory of knowledge, psychology, philosophy and epistemology, you can just keep digging deeper and deeper. There are some pretty complex issues to understand, which is probably why there are statistics out there which suggest around 85% of all change initiatives go over-time, over-budget, over-both or fail completely ... because people don't want complex and difficult, they want a simple quick fix .. so it's ironic that the fastest cheapest way to deal with change is to bite the bullet and deal with the complex issues up-front - i.e. do change 'Right first time'.
It’s safe to say leading Innovative change is not easy to get right in practice!
In respect to perceptions and an individuals locus of control, people require a certain ‘freedom to act’, to feel in control rather than controlled. They certainly do not respond as well as they might if they are a ‘Slave to the machine’, especially the over-logical type of machines we are surrounded with today. Equally though, ambiguous direction from leaders (too much laissez faire) can provoke feelings of insecurity and a lack of confidence, which leads to stress in teams, glucose energy diverted to the amygdala, defence mechanisms cutting in and mistakes being made.
A funny example of this ‘Brain response’ in stressful situations presented itself to me today while I was writing this. An FB update described my wife’s friend carrying a load of shopping to the car from the shop, when her knicker elastic snapped, requiring she try and stop them dropping past her knees and out the bottom of her skirt to her ankles, as she held up bags of shopping and struggled to get her car keys out, eventually getting to a position she could press the remote
button to unlock the car she pressed it over and over again, frantically trying to get into the car before anyone saw her predicament and embarrassment … she pressed it and pressed it but the car wouldn’t open no matter what she tried ... then she realised …. In her panic, she had walked to the wrong car!
Her pre-frontal cortex had basically shut down, to divert the majority of glucose energy in the brain to her defence mechanisms, adrenaline flooded her blood-stream, stressor hormones surged to prime muscles and heighten reactions, fight-flight responses took over, rendering her incapable of logical thought – she bolted to remove herself from the danger of embarrassment, but bolted in the wrong direction.
It’s a relatively mild example, the threat was minimal being only one of acute embarrassment, but it provides a live example of how people can make mistakes when stressed, even something as obvious as returning to your own car, that you parked just 10 mins before, can go wrong when your brain perceives a threat and triggers the release of stressor hormones into your system. When that stress is chronic, such mistakes are common-place, posing company’s problems with Health and Safety, quality, cost, delivery, growth and morale at a cultural level.
Leaders who identify the critical importance of ‘Innovation’, and other ‘soft skills’ like empowerment, ownership, total quality management, cost reductions etc. must consider the neurological issues when choosing what conditions to create in their organisations & they must acknowledge, their own thinking is a major factor in the formation of those conditions.
Where leadership teams manage to understand innovation and leadership at this level, then the financial results captured by Kotter and Heskett are available to all in addition to benefits in QCDGSM (Quality, Cost, Delivery, Growth, Safety and Morale) at an operational level.
Funny then, that the idea of neuroscience and psychology in relation to organisational change is virtually non-existent in a world flooded with change management, Lean, Six Sigma, OpEx, Agile, WCM, AI, EI, OD, Prince II, BSC, EFQM and CPD.
Perhaps it’s time for a little Innovation!