7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain And Be More Innovative

7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain And Be More InnovativeYou 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.

7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain And Be More Innovative

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.

image credit: thoughtful image from bigstock & brainleader

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.

This entry was posted in Creativity, Innovation, Psychology, Science, Strategy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to 7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain And Be More Innovative

  1. Terry says:

    Great article. I think you’ve highlighted really well the survival mechanisms of the brain that were once useful during our evolution but are now getting in our way. It appears that what underpins most of these is a fear of failure. Do you have solutions for how we can overcome this survival mechanism?

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  4. Javier Funez says:

    Great text

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  6. Thanks for this very useful article. My take on the problem you have so lucidly described is to devise a science-based process for training everyone in Integrative Thinking so that adopting the solutions you have put forward becomes a habit and gives to all involved a common basis for communication – the essential ingredient for successful groups and organisations.

    I would be happy to discuss this with anyone interested and during December 2012 give them an opportunity to trial and comment on the process at no charge.

  7. Sorry for the delay in writing. I was on vacation last week.

    Terry, I proposed some high level solutions to the challenges in the article. But of course there is a lot more to be said about each. Sometimes, just being aware of the limitations of the brain can help you move in the right direction. For example, studies done on confirmation bias showed that when people are made aware of this, and constantly reminded of it (with cards, checklists, etc), they can overcome it. And sometimes, it requires asking different questions which help the brain get trained to see challenges from a different perspective.

    Graham, your process sounds interesting. I do believe that the end-goal is to make create new habits (or sometimes I prefer to call them rituals) to help overcome out pre-writes limitations.

    Thanks everyone.

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