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Your Brain on Innovation

light bulbs sketched on chalkboard Many small ideas make a big one

George Ainsworth-Land, author of Grow or Die: the Unifying Principle of Transformation, said organizations must grow or die, and growth depends on innovation. Most of us would heartily endorse this statement and believe the best organizations find new and original ways to add value to their products and services. The most admired companies continually find better methods to engage their employees, form creative alliances with their suppliers rather than the tired, adversarial relationships of the past, and create fresh ways to attract and retain stakeholders. As a consequence, they flourish.

There is no question innovation is fundamental to organizational success. Unfortunately, it is also rare. After all of the effort, time and money spent trying to create innovation in our organizations, creativity remains remarkably elusive. It’s a mystery why organizations don’t embrace new ideas and better methods.

One key to overcoming resistance to innovation and change comes from our increased understanding of a brain region known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). The DACC is associated with physical pain and its related emotions. In the January issue of Scientific American, Kipling D. Williams reported that our desire to be accepted, included and to fit in is as strong as our need for food, water and air. He expressly described it as a need rather than a preference or desire.

Of all the indignities we can suffer at the hands of others, ostracism is one of the most painful. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that individuals will choose obviously incorrect answers to oral questions when the other members of a group conspire to visibly choose it first. The power of conformity is far greater than we sense it to be. Using brain scans we can see the DACC registers the same pattern whether we are experiencing a physical beating or are being rejected, ignored or ostracized by others.

Who can fail to remember the pain that accompanied being passed over rather than chosen to be part of a highly desired team or group when we were children? Remember the anxiety that accompanied the possibility of rejection by someone you found particularly attractive and with whom you desired a stronger relationship? How about the excruciating pain of being taken to task in public by someone close to us?

All of this makes perfect sense when the stakes are high and the exclusion is related to a prized goal or important relationship. But the surprising thing about these studies is even trivial rejections or minor exclusions by strangers in unimportant settings can evoke very strong responses.

Understanding that being unwelcome is interpreted by the DACC in the same way we experience severe physical pain should help us understand one of the principal barriers to innovation and how to remove it. Psychologist William James said the need to be understood and valued is the universal drive for all social beings. We must first help people feel they and their ideas are valued before we can expect them to behave in an innovative manner. Otherwise we are bound to get only defensiveness and conformity.

If the culture of your organization is one of silos, criticism and exclusion, you are unlikely to get cross-unit innovation and integration. Perhaps this is why “boundarylessness” was such a mantra for Jack Welch at General Electric when he was trying to promote innovation.

It reminds me of occasions when I’ve found myself in unfamiliar, sometimes hostile environments. For instance, I was an Air Force aircraft commander toward the end of the Vietnam War. We had a host of clear guidelines and procedures, but the uniqueness of these situations required that we innovate within ethical bounds and on target with the mission. To make matters more challenging, it was normal for all 10 of our crewmembers to meet for the first time at the pre-mission briefing. To obtain the nimble frame of mind needed to improvise in tight situations we had to connect in a meaningful way and ensure that every crewmember felt accepted and valued before we ever launched the aircraft.

If you want to cultivate innovation, try inclusion first, and tell the DACC to relax.

Fred Harburg is a private consultant, writer and speaker in leadership, strategy and performance coaching. He has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Motorola and Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.