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Why we might be struggling to improve conditions for innovation

This piece was originally written as a contriobution at the UnitedSucces Symposium in Rome May 2015, then adapted for Synquity's newsletter.

Why CEOs are not happy with Innovation Results

While we have talked for quite some time now about the importance of innovation, study after study finds that CEOs are not quite happy with the results. Why? The first piece of the puzzle revealed itself to me over 20 years ago when I started working for myself. I often got the reaction of: gosh, how brave, how courageous! It did not feel like that to me! Doing a job I could not feel passionate about would have taken much more courage… Working for myself was the easy way out.

It became very clear to me then that we obviously have a different understanding of what constitutes risk, bravery, and courage. Those with an idea are generally enthusiastic, communicating excitedly about how they are going to change the world. Those they are communicating with, and trying to sell the idea to, have often a different frame of mind: they might not get so excited by changing the world, in fact, they’d prefer things stayed as they are (often because they were the ones putting the current system into place).

As I always want to understand, I asked myself, What happens when we are uncomfortable, or to put it more drastic, feel threatened? Here some insights from neuroscience come in handy. (What I am saying now may be rather simplified but I think it makes the point.)

Put very simply, our brain is divided into two main parts: the ‘old’ or limbic part of the brain, called Amygdala, to which I will refer to as the ‘red zone’. Then there is the ‘new’ part, the Prefrontal Cortex, to which I will refer to as the ‘blue zone’. Each part has different functions, and being in the red or the blue is triggered by different things. Another important point to mention here is that the amount of energy available to the brain is fixed, meaning that if energy is used by one part of the brain, e.g. the red zone, it is not available to the other, e.g. the blue zone.

Let’s take a look at the red zone first; It is triggered by stress hormones and increases heart rate and blood flow to the skeletal muscles. It is focused on self, is sensitive to threat; it is the seat of anger, fear and depression. It is about fight or flight and instinct, about impulses and desires; it is also about low order learning (e.g. memorising rather than applying knowledge), and importantly, it is resistant to change.

We end up in the red zone through things such as a physical threat, fear, anxiety, guilt; but also by a lack of clarity, rejection and sarcasm, exclusion and not being listened to, perceived unfairness and being judged, and being told how to think. Indeed, it is hard to think straight when we are angry or stressed (in fact, we see ‘red …).

What about the blue zone? It is reflective, managing our impulsive desires; it is slower and more resource intensive. It is the seat of affiliation, generosity and goodwill; it is the home of imagination and creativity, where options are considered, and higher order learning takes place, i.e. combining things. We get into the blue zone fundamentally by feeling safe; this involves feeling respected, trusted and loved, being listened to - receiving authentic attention, being acknowledged and included, having clarity and permission, experiencing generosity and also when others show vulnerability.

Now let’s come back to our starting point: about organisations struggling with innovation. What generally happens? The CEO stands up saying: we need more innovation, all of you need to become more innovative! If risk, uncertainty and ambiguity are outside the comfort zone - which they certainly are for many of us - which zone do you think will be triggered?

Getting people out of the red, making innovation more comfortable depends on three things:

  • Accepting people just the way they are, with their differences in preferences, not least with regards to risk, uncertainty and ambiguity. If we want innovation and not just creativity we need all of them anyway!

  • Understanding that the request for more innovation is likely to push many people into the red - and perhaps especially managers and decision makers in many organisations. So you might want to think carefully whom you want to ask to make decisions about taking on high risk projects...

  • Consciously working on getting those people back into the blue zone.

How to do that? Well, we know what triggers our energy to get into the blue zone: -

  • Involve them, by perhaps asking their opinion, and listen to them with an open mind and heart (meaning also that we stay calm and open when they give it to us…).

  • Respecting what is currently in place (they might have been the ones who put it there!)

  • Providing clarity, and making that which does not yet exist more tangible, be it through storytelling or prototypes.

  • And finally, humor and laughter dissipates tension and is one mechanism of bringing the energy from the red back into the blue part of our brain.

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