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Janet Crawford: Innovation’s Neural Paradox

Janet Crawford Cascadance
September 30, 2014
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 does innovation play hard to get?

Humans hold a unique spot in the Animal Kingdom due to our capacity to innovate. Our powerful frontal lobes allow us to imagine a future that doesn’t exist now and — through the power of language — coordinate action with other humans to translate thought into reality. Because this comes so naturally to humans, it’s easy to take it for granted and assume that conscious direction of our reality is what runs the show.

Neuroscientists agree, though, that the lion’s share of what you think and do is manufactured by a brain running on autopilot, guided by a combination of instinct and unconsciously acquired learning. Very little is the result of original thought. The frontal lobes, powerful though they may be, are extremely limited.

Amy Arnsten, who heads research on the prefrontal cortex at Yale University’s Arnsten Lab, calls this area “the Goldilocks of the brain” because it wants everything “just right.” Just right turns out to be a perfect mix between safety and stimulation.  Too little safety and the brain defaults to instinct and patterns. Too little stimulation and there’s simply not enough to hold its attention.

We come preloaded with a host of neural programming that runs counter to the ability to produce novel ideas. We are biologically designed to see the world through unconsciously acquired patterns and to resist change, to congregate and work most seamlessly with those who are like us, and to bypass creative thinking when we’re stressed, tired or overworked.

The brain has very limited faculty to take in and process new information. Our environment continuously serves up more than we can possibly attend to consciously. In the first few years of life, 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 wasting our precious conscious attention resources.

The downside for innovation is that patterns constrain what we see and think. We’ve all experienced this: you learn a new word which you swear you’ve never heard used before, only to then encounter it with frequency. You buy a new car, and suddenly that exact make, model and color seems to appear everywhere.

My partner works in the music industry with heavy metal bands. When we first met, I knew very little about the genre and assumed it had mostly gone the way of the ‘80s. To my surprise, heavy metal hoodies, caps and license plate holders appeared as if by magic in my upscale neighborhood. Did the start of my relationship coincide with a sudden interest in metal among people at my gym and local supermarket? Of course not! The band merchandise had been there all along, but I didn’t have the patterns to recognize it.

Patterns blind us to things that exist in plain sight. In order to notice new things, we need to expose ourselves to thinking and cross connections that are not bound by our pre-existing neural networks. In other words, we need diversity.

Diversity takes many forms — from the commonly understood diversity of age, gender and ethnicity to diversity of experience and environment.Is your team or organization full of people like you? Do they come from the same race, gender or age group — or share the same socioeconomic 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, however, presents us with a classic Catch-22. We are designed to feel safer and collaborate more easily with people with whom we share a great deal in common. When we feel safe, the frontal lobes are freer to think creatively. Ancient programming from millennia of life on the African Savanna 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. 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 Stanford University’s Jamil Zaki and others 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.

Lastly, our patterns allow us to survive and the brain jealously protects them. This is why change is hard. Even when the conscious brain knows that a new way would be better, the powerful pull of the unconscious brain works to preserve the status quo.  The tried and true feels safer.

Given all this, fostering innovation is a tall order. Here are some starting points:

  1. Hire for diversity of experience and background.

  2. Encourage your team to explore new perspectives and experiences, even (and especially) when the connection to business goals is non-intuitive.

  3. Create diverse environments. Take walks, hold off-site meetings in non-traditional locations, and provide space for play and informal interaction.

  4. Foster safety. Build relationships with those who are different, encourage inclusive conversation and create a culture that supports both challenge and group cohesion.

Nature can be like a stern parent, attempting to protect us from the romantic misadventure of continual change. If we truly want to build cultures of innovative, we must intentionally create the conditions for conceptual flirtation and seduction to occur.

Janet Crawford is founder of Cascadance and the Women & Innovation Lab. She is a pioneer in the application of biology and neuroscience to organizational leadership and culture.


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