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The neurology of innovation

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The neurology of innovation

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Being innovative is one of those things that most organizations want to be great at, but few actually are.  A big reason for this failure is that few organisations are actually structured to deliver innovation.  Most are structured to do the things they do, and to do them as efficiently and as profitably as possible.  That’s kinda what they’re in business for, right?

So delivering on things that deviate from this norm can often be a struggle.  The kind of thinking that makes the cash cow part of the business so effective, is often not the kind of thinking that will generate innovations for you.

That this differential between exploration and exploitation exists on an organizational level seems fairly well established, but a fascinating study published last year suggests there may be a neurological basis for it within each of us.

The study saw brain scans conducted on 63 experienced executive decision makers as they decided to be either innovative (exploratory), or efficient (exploitative) in a simple simulation game.  It helped to reveal the unique circuitry that is at play during each mode of thinking.

The exploitative thinking mode generated brain activity in areas typically associated with anticipation and reward.  Sticking in the cash cow mode, raking in the money obviously has some neurological comfort to it, alongside of course the familiarity that often comes with such thinking.

When the executives were in the exploratory or innovative modes however, their brains triggered activity in the executive centres and the areas that controlled attention.  In other words, looking for something innovative and new would demand more attention and effort than doing the status quo.

The research has a number of pretty serious implications.  The study suggested that our neurological processes tend to deteriorate with age, so as managers climb the corporate ladder and obtain positions where they can make serious, innovative decisions, they are neurologically less capable of doing so.  It suggests that neurological training is an essential element of any executive education offered to leaders.  What’s more, the high level of brain power required for innovation is diminished if the person is under stress, which might also be something for companies to consider when attempting to be innovative.

Now, suffice to say, this study looks purely at innovation on an individual level, and there are a whole host of organizational elements to innovative behaviour that are crucial to the whole process.  Nevertheless, it provides an interesting scientific insight into the way our brain processes innovative thoughts.

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