7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain And Be More Innovative

November 15, 2012

You are alive today.  You were alive yesterday.  You were alive the day before that. This is good news from a survival perspective.  Unfortunately it is bad news from an innovation perspective.

Your brain is wired to keep you alive.

Your brain makes the assumption that because you were alive yesterday, what you did previously is safe. Therefore repeating the past is good for survival. As a result, doing things differently, even if it seems like an improvement, is risky.  Perpetuating past behaviors, from the brain’s reptilian perspective, is the safest way.

This is why innovation is difficult for most individuals and organizations.

Innovation is about change. It is about doing something different than you did previously.  It is about trying something that you have not done before, and therefore may feel is a danger to your survival.

How does the brain’s survival instinct prevent innovation–and what can you do about it?  Here are seven ways to outsmart your brain.

Challenge No. 1: The brain wants pains solved first. The brain is wired to minimize loss. We want to keep what we already have. Equally, we are not interested in something new, until we address our pains. The brain seeks preservation over pleasure.
Solution: Recognize that people want their pains solved more than anything else. Be the aspirin. Innovation is not just about creating something new and different. It should solve a problem that people have. Infomercials are especially effective at demonstrating this.

Challenge No. 2: Expertise is the enemy of innovation. We build neural pathways to known solutions. What we know best (or in some cases have heard most recently) becomes our default answer. Unfortunately, once we find an answer to a problem, we stop looking for other possible solutions.  As a result, the tried and true wins out and we get more of the same.
Solution: Keep looking.  Although this sounds simple, don’t stop with the obvious answers. Keep pushing until you are out of ideas and then still push forward.  Ask “who else has solved a problem like this?” A whitening toothpaste was developed by studying how laundry detergent whitens clothes.  A medical device manufacturer learned how angioplasty balloons expand and contract by studying car airbag deployment.

Challenge No. 3: The brain wants solutions, not problems. In the world of business, we hear the expression, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” From a survival perspective this makes sense.  When faced with the possibility of being eaten by a lion, we don’t want to study our navel. Action is critical. However, in the world of innovation, the “problem” is actually more important.
Solution: Ask better questions. Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Instead of asking for broad ideas such as how to increase revenues, first identify the specific growth opportunities, untapped markets, emerging trends and current roadblocks. Then find solutions to those more focused challenges.

Challenge No. 4: The brain craves commonality. Contrary to conventional wisdom, opposites do not attract. It is safer to be in a tribe of people who think the same way.  Things get done quickly.  It feels effortless.  But the downside is that it thwarts innovation.
Solution: Work with people who are not like you.  Find people with different backgrounds, personality styles, and interests.  Appreciate their contribution to you and your professional efforts.  For example, I am someone who is disorganized and despises plans or planning.  As a result, the first person I bring on to my team is a detail-oriented project manager who can make sure ensure that I get everything done.

Challenge No. 5: The brain sees what it believes. The brain uses a pattern matching technique called “confirmation bias.”  In a nutshell, it rejects anything that is inconsistent with your belief structure. This is why two people can listen to the same political candidate and hear completely different things. From an innovation perspective, this may have us get attached to certain ideas, despite evidence proving that they are probably duds.
Solution: Avoid getting wed to your ideas by getting someone to play devil’s advocate.  Any time you think to yourself, “Wow, this is a great idea,” get someone to poke holes in your logic.  Don’t go to the same people for input.  Seek out people who you suspect would reject the idea.  Learn from them.  Refine your solution based on numerous perspectives, not just your own biases.

Challenge No. 6: Your brain only sees a fraction of reality. What you focus on expands, to the exclusion of everything else.  The brain’s reticular activating system is designed to filter out 99.99 percent of the stimuli out there. This prevents the brain from being overwhelmed by information.  Unfortunately, as a result, you miss out on opportunities because you cannot even see they are there. When you are a technology expert, the solution to every problem involves software/hardware. Opportunities are limited to your frame of reference.
Solution: Sometimes you need to purposefully retrain the brain. Attend conferences unrelated to your work. Read magazines from different industries. This is why I don’t read books on innovation, but instead read about neuroscience, psychology, and sports performance. This helps me see more of the world and find opportunities in places I wouldn’t have thought to look.

Challenge No. 7: The brain thinks too much: The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the judgmental part of the brain. It is analytical and calculating. This is great for decision-making that requires logic.  But it can kill innovation. When athletes choke, they are over thinking and constrict the neural pathways that allow access to their deeper capabilities.
Solution: Quiet that part of the brain through meditation, yoga, showering or any other relaxing activity. This allows you to gain access to the creative parts of your brain. Aristotle found his greatest breakthroughs while napping. One company found that they could speed up the development of new product ideas through meditation first thing in the morning.

The brain is incredibly powerful. And it does its job exceptionally well: perpetuate the species. It does this by ensuring the survival of the individual and the gene pool. Although this is of course valuable, it does limit our ability to try new things. Perpetuating the past is the surest way to survive. But for organizations, doing what you did in the past is the fastest path to extinction. By knowing how your brain is wired, you can choose to both survive and thrive.

This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum.  Please comment, like, and share from there.


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Stalin Was Right…Statistics Don’t Matter

November 1, 2012

Back in 1995, I was driving Accenture’s (then Andersen Consulting) business process reengineering practice. I traveled the world helping companies downsize. Although downsizing wasn’t the objective of reengineering, it was often the outcome.

While working on one particular project, I knew that 10,000 people were going to lose their jobs as a result of our work. Somehow I was able to rationalize away the impact on the lives of so many people.

Three is More than 10,000

That is, until I was watching a television show about three executives from that very company who were laid-off a year earlier. One person cried the entire interview. Another was optimistic even though he had not yet found a suitable job. And the third person committed suicide.

The next day, while at the client site, I confirmed that the stories were true. I immediately dismissed myself and never returned to the project. After watching that TV show, I could no longer be a contributor to even one lost job.

Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

As I discovered personally, 10,000 lost jobs was a statistic; one lost job was unbearable.

Big Data and Human Desire

Lately, innovation and innovation marketing has been left in the hands of statisticians. It lacks the personal touch.

Big data is driving the decision-making process in many organizations. But numbers cannot address the subtleties of human desire. Statistics only capture what we see on the surface, and can rarely tap into deeper needs.

In order for an innovation to be successful, it does of course need to tap into the needs of the masses. But sometimes the best way to find those needs is to look at the individuals. Listen to your customers directly; not just through surveys, focus groups or data mining as these methodologies can have significant drawbacks.

Surveys and focus groups tend to lead consumers down a particular path due to the way questions are structured. Also, the questioning process taps into the conscious mind; buying behaviors and hidden needs are often only uncovered by tapping into the subconscious.

Data mining, analytics and big data typically capture information about existing customers. But it does little to identify needs of non-customers and ex-customers. Plus it can only capture information about current products and services.

Capture the Customer

Instead, observe your customers. Watch them in action. Watch their struggles. Look for unarticulated needs. What are their pains? And find ways of tapping into their personal interests so that you can share their individual stories and contributions.

One company that has done this particularly well is Kimberly-Clarke. They launched their Huggies MomInspired Grant Program. In a nutshell, mothers who have an idea for a new product can obtain funding and support to bring it to market.

Although the products address the specific needs of one mother, as it turns out, most parents have the same issue. And in many cases, these opportunities are not uncovered through surveys or data mining.

One added advantage of the Huggies program is not just in the identification of new products. The inventor becomes the spokesperson. They become an evangelist, telling their personal story. It is the personal story that humanizes the product making it more appealing to consumers.

Emotion Sells

Humanizing is the key here. Buyers can’t relate to statistics, generic features and functions. But they can connect with the stories of individuals whose lives are changed. People buy on emotion, not intellect. They want a human connection.

If you want to innovate effectively, stop dealing only with impersonal statistics, data and numbers. You do this by identifying the real impact your product or service has on the consumer through observation or stories.

My speeches are to hundreds or thousands of people. At the conclusion, clients often conduct satisfaction surveys. While I generally receive the highest ratings, the responses are too abstract for me to get any real value.

Yesterday I had received a letter from someone who attended a recent speech. He said that the techniques I shared enabled him to solve a problem that had plagued him for a decade. This one personal example provides more value for me than 2,000 “very happy” responses and “great energy” comments on a survey. In addition, this example had an impact on my motivation; I felt energized. It also helped me understand what is really resonating with the audience and I can continue to refine my offerings.

If you own a small business, receiving a high Yelp rating is great. But that is impersonal. Gather stories from customers, in their own words. Go beyond the evaluation of the food, dry cleaning, or whatever you offer. Learn about the deep impact that your service has had in the lives of others. Has your restaurant brought families together? Has your dry cleaner freed up time so that parents now have time to spend with their children?

You are not selling a product or service. You are selling an emotion.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

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