Innovation is a Neuro function

innov2Ask yourself where you had your last few innovative ideas? Ask someone else where they had theirs? You are likely to get a broad spectrum of responses ranging from a coffee shop, a shower, to an offsite retreat and a walk on the beach. The very fact that there are so many geo-spatial locations implies that geography has little to do with innovation. Why then would we design an “innovation center” or assume a conference room of sorts or any other workplace space is where innovation would occur? Or that a certain technology or tool is required for what ultimately is a cognitive function? The truth is that innovation occurs in our brains when a conglomerate of variables come together. It is the same with collaboration which is a form of innovation where the thoughts/ideas in one brain need to be complemented with those of another to produce a better outcome than had each one done it one its own.  I understand that a ‘space’ might be one of those variables but it hardly is an important one. Take for example a 2-hour problem solving collaborative innovation meeting in a conference room at work with say, twelve very talented people in a company meet led by the leader of that team. Let’s say that in the first hour, the meeting has gone reasonably well but the boss of the leader decides to enter the meeting. It is likely that many if not all of the twelve would suddenly ‘feel’ different about sharing their ideas or thoughts because the boss of their boss is now in the room. They might feel some anxiety or apprehension and decide to be more cautious than earlier. In this scenario, nothing much has changed. It was the same problem that had to be solved, in the same room, in the same time with an hour’s progress already made yet everything had changed. That ‘everything’ was a neurological and subconscious assessment of a new threat that subsequently compromised their ability to collaborate and innovate. The result was no real solution was achieved. Did the innovative or collaborative skills of the twelve suddenly disappear (they existed in the first hour) or was the skill still there but replaced with a more powerful motive to self-preserve?  I think most of you would conclude it is the latter.

In successful innovation and collaboration, the neuropathways are able to freely seek multiple synopsis (memories) and leverage intellectual deduction (“connecting the dots”) to both capture and process what is being said by others (collaboration) and to conjure solutions (innovate). Certain “places” like the beach or a mountain retreat enhance this neuropathway traffic because they have essentially removed the debilitating stimuli (such as your boss walking in) but make no mistake, innovation and collaboration are cognitive functions and there may be pre-existing debilitating stimuli (such as a poor performance in a past session, or even as far back as childhood experiences of failure, risk aversion) or newer negative stimuli such as a deadline or budgetary constraints. Just as in the example of the meeting of twelve, all these negative stimuli redirect neuropathways from free-flowing at warp speed to limiting them to only a few locations and a few safe solutions. Most of this is happening very fast and subconsciously, which is why many of us think about these sessions more later in the evening and think of things we should have said or done.
This week, and this new year, if a primary function of your business life is to innovate via collaboration, then re-think the process itself from what can can you do to stimulate ideas (eg go offsite) to what can you do to remove all the possible negative stimuli before and during the problem-solving session. An effective way of doing this is head on. Keep constant emotional temperature of the room and individuals in it, Stop the process to address when, for whatever reason, it feels like it has changed for the worse. I facilitated an executive team retreat a few weeks ago where the size of the room where we met was smaller than their offices, with no chairs or tables. This made it difficult for anyone to mask any negative behavior and I would stop our process when something was said that induced a constriction of neuropathways, which can be easily observed by monitoring non-verbal behavior. We had budgeted a full day to tackle an issue and were done by our first break at 10:30am!
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