This is your brain on innovation (Executive Series)

Anyone can be creative and innovative – under the right conditions
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2015

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements:

Getting those innovative juices flowing by Morgan Smyth

What makes creative energy so elusive? by Trish Maguire 

This is your brain on innovation (Executive Series)

Anyone can be creative and innovative – under the right conditions

By Liz Bernier

Where do people get their best ideas? Chances are, it’s not while they’re running a meeting or corralled in a brainstorming session — great ideas usually come effortlessly, as a flash of inspiration.

“When you are in a state of flow, (it’s) when you lose track of time and four hours have gone by and you think, ‘Where did the day go?’” said Brady Wilson, co-founder of Juice, a corporate training company in Toronto, at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

A state of flow is when work feels easy and inspiration — and innovation — strike without being forced.

“(The best ideas) come to us as epiphanies in a moment of energy, when we are in a really good state,” he said.

Wilson cited one particular client in the entertainment industry that was facing significant competitive challenges and the need to continually reinvent itself. So how could it learn to be more innovative?

Everything in the organization was driven by one operating system, he said: Conversation.

“We’re trying to move organizations from treating conversation and relegating it to the episodic — whenever there’s an episode, I bring out my conversation skills. We’re saying, ‘No, there’s a way to step into conversation every day and move into the epic business tensions that we face, and we can understand what matters most to this person and this person in a situation,”’ he said.

“We can do the good work of harmonizing our competing needs and draw the energy out of the tension — draw the solutions out of the tension.”

A second aspect is energy management, according to Wilson.

“Again, if we shift… to creating and building the conditions where we partner with each other to create an environment where energy can flow — and it flows idiosyncratically, we understand that. But when energy is there, we know that innovation can be very close by,” he said.

A third aspect is the way in which innovation is structured, he said.

“(It’s about) a structure process that is an every-person way of doing innovation — where it’s not those braniacs who are sequestered away in the R&D room. No — it’s a type of process that anybody, no matter what their thinking style, can walk in on and contribute to.”

Chemical reactions

Chemical reactions are also an important consideration, according to Wilson. Take, for example, a lioness stalking her prey — her brain is releasing one particular chemical: Dopamine.

“When you see the reward, your brain releases all the resources required to get to the reward,” said Wilson. “Dopamine makes you insanely creative, it allows you the ingenuity and the inventiveness and the energy to pursue and be attuned to your goal. It creates a reward orientation.”

For that reason, dopamine is one of the brain hormones that’s considered very important to innovation, he said.

“If we go into an innovation process and people are low on dopamine, the types of innovation that will come out will be pedestrian at best.”

Another important factor is oxytocin, which releases connection and openness, he said.

Also a critical factor to innovation? Serotonin.

“Serotonin, the active ingredient in Prozac, reduces stress, worry, fear and it builds a sense of confidence and belief and possibility,” he said.

So when dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin are released in the brain, people who are overloaded with information and deadlines can begin to innovate.

The reactions people have for survival are also key to creating innovation, said Wilson.

“Survival is prediction, pattern recognition, focused attention, the ability to regulate your emotions, the ability to create great strategies and make great decisions. These are basically the power tools of innovation, and they are the first thing that we lose when we are completely depleted at work.”

And innovation isn’t just for so-called creative types.

“When we talk to leaders about this, what they’ll often say is ‘Innovation is on everybody’s website,’ and leaders are saying to not just managers but also employees ‘We have to be more innovative in today’s business climate,’” he said. “And what the employees are saying back is ‘We hear you saying this is really important — we don’t have a clue how to step into that.’”

People often don’t know how to innovate — they don’t always feel like they are “creative” per se, yet they are thrown into a brainstorming group and expected to produce brilliant ideas on demand, said Wilson.

“How do we create a process that builds the conditions where that energy can grow?”

Rational versus emotional sides of the brain

To answer that question, it’s important to understand the two “sides” of the brain — the rational and the emotional.

“When you look at that emotional brain, what does it do for us? It feels what other people feel,” said Wilson.

“That’s a useful skill in innovation if you want to be human-centric in your innovation.”

Emotion also gives us gut-level intuition and hunches that are beyond what our rational brain can get to.

“It scans for cues. It’s always looking at someone’s physiology and scanning for the most minute clues in their physiology,” he said. “It basically is one of the power tools of sociality.”

Sociality or social cognition means making sense of others and of ourselves. It’s what allows people to do the three things they need to preserve their genes — to connect, co-ordinate with others and harmonize their needs, according to Wilson.

But there can be a downside.

“Once (the emotional brain) senses possibility or peril, then it will release the appropriate hormones. It’s either going to be those approach hormones or those avoid hormones,” said Wilson.

The other side, or the rational brain, contains the ability to predict outcomes — to focus your attention in the midst of massive distractions, to regulate emotions in tension-filled situations, to step into decision-making and execution, he said.

“Clearly, when these two brains work together, we can be remarkable human beings and we can be incredibly innovative. The issue is that when we’re in a situation where we’re being asked to brainstorm and we’re not a creative person, it can feel to us like a threatening situation,” said Wilson.

“And before we know it, that emotional brain has become overblown, hyper vigilant, sending all sorts of messages that ‘You have nothing to contribute here. You’re going to fail here. You’re going to look stupid among your peers.’

“The chance of us creating great innovations in that situation is very slim.”

It’s also important to learn how to embrace tension and make it productive, said Wilson.

“Business leaders, their very first response to tension in the organization is to avoid it,” he said.

“The energy is actually in the tension, and the epic tensions that we deal with in innovation have to do with: Do we centralize control or do we decentralize control? Do we disseminate information to everybody or is it on a need-to-know basis?

“Do we do what’s right for the whole or do we do what’s right for the individual? Our managers, our directors, our leaders are standing in the midst of those tensions every day.”

Getting those innovative juices flowing

By Morgan Smyth

Grow or die — this is the mantra of today’s organizations. Easy to say, hard to do.

It’s hard because it involves change and many employees, especially the most senior executives, are averse to change because it is associated with risk.

Take the person at the very top, for instance. Why would she welcome change? She thinks she has the most at stake and, in her mind, there is only one way to go — down. So, instead, many executives just sit there, watching the world go by.

And the world is definitely going by, whether they like it or not. We have only to think of Sears, IBM, Motorola and even McDonald’s, for example. Can you imagine the amount of brain-power each of these companies possesses and how each could have used it much more effectively?

The only way these companies are going to get back in the game is by buying their way in, through acquisitions. It would take too long to reinvent their way back or try to change their current cultures.

It’s hard to imagine how they must feel when they witness what young startups are able to accomplish on shoestring budgets — feats these old stalwarts could have financed out of petty-cash alone, but didn’t.

Look at BlackBerry. Once the world’s leader in smartphones, now it’s having to completely reinvent itself from the ground up, just to stay alive. Luckily, a few years ago, it bought QNX Software Systems, which is now enabling BlackBerry to completely metamorphose itself from being a hardware company to a software and cloud services provider.

The one key common component each of these companies lacked was a culture of innovation. In order to grow, companies must change; and to change, they must innovate; and to innovate, they must create an innovative culture.

How? Well, they have to tackle these three requirements in reverse order — beginning with culture, because without a culture that embraces innovation, the other two preconditions are impossible.

But are employees receptive to working for organizations that are constantly changing? As an answer, just ask Google (or Alphabet as it’s now called). Here’s a company that started off as a simple search engine provider that now boasts at least 186 subsidiaries.

This kind of innovation and growth explains why there is a steady stream of bright, talented, hopeful people beating a path to Alphabet’s door, eager to shape the future of the world. It’s certainly not because Alphabet has the best ping-pong tables or the best hot lunches. It’s because Alphabet is changing our world and these people want to be a part of it.

People are driven by their emotions. Consultants such as Brady Wilson and his aptly named company, Juice, know that in order to create a culture that encourages and rewards people to go beyond their normal engagement level to one of passion, they must be energize. And he lists 10 ways on his website.

Here are a few other suggestions to get the innovative juices flowing:

Practise equality: No matter what a person’s position, he must know his job is no more important, nor less important, than anyone else’s. Each person just has different areas of responsibility.

Include everyone in goal-setting: To maximize buy-in from all employees, they have to feel committed. How? Have them actively participate in creating the plan.

Balance responsibility with authority: When an employee is assigned a set of responsibilities, she must also be given the authority to carry these out.

Change is constant: Getting people to step outside their sphere of comfort can be challenging. So management should think of the change process as a series of concentric rings on a disc. The goal is to help this person move from the outermost ring to the innermost. Because of a person’s sensitivity to change, the best approach is to help him move to the next adjacent groove only. Before long, the centre and final ring is reached. Then, the focus should be on what was accomplished overall, and the typical response is “Great, let’s keep going.”

Change perspectives: Look at the organization through different eyes; through various employees’ eyes, customers’ eyes, suppliers’ and the other stakeholders involved. What would each of them like to see done better?

Be proactive: Being reactive is a loser’s game. Only by proactively innovating and moving forward can a team truly gel and achieve sustainable success.

Every employee wants to make a difference. Every organization wants to survive and grow. It’s up to management to marry these desires together and release the passion to make it happen.

Morgan Smyth is an SCNetwork thought leader and a change management consultant who launched his own IT services company which soared to Profit Magazine’s 50 Fastest Growing Companies. He is based in Toronto and can be reached at

What makes creative energy so elusive?

By Trish Maguire

Brady Wilson’s vision is to create a world where businesses pulsate with creative energy. No surprise that his focus is to teach organizations how to build the flow of energy by unlocking people’s potential to achieve A.B.C.D. or go “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty.”  

For Wilson, this means employers have to begin by stimulating innovative thinking.  In my experience, this is a tough yet not insurmountable feat that requires leadership to have courageous patience.  

 Innovation can never be a one-time event.  It has to be a continuing, never-ending practice.  Organizations need to continuously change; maintaining the status quo does not build great companies, increase revenue growth or deliver that tantalizing competitive advantage.

 It’s intriguing that leadership continues to require and expect more innovation, with fewer and fewer resources.

 So what makes innovation so elusive? We know people want to be given the opportunity to think for themselves, to know where they fit in the bigger picture and to know how they can play a more meaningful part. We also know it’s no longer good enough to believe an organization’s vision, mission and strategic plan is all it needs to automatically inspire people to deliver innovative solutions.  

Often, leadership makes the mistake of selling people on innovation as being a fun and creative activity. And leadership believes that by choosing specific managers to be “innovative champions” and using new tools and processes, innovative ideas will naturally happen.

The reality is that quick, feel-good brainstorming sessions do not enable people to promptly and relentlessly change the way they think or see. Innovation is about looking beyond limited thinking patterns, habits and beliefs, finding new angles and raising new questions and new possibilities.   

Encouraging and enabling people to unleash their creative minds requires a process that goes beyond any brainstorming session. Both Google and Apple are consummate examples of how organizations can drive sustainable and long-term innovative results.  

Both continue to achieve record-breaking results that other organizations have yet to match.  Both organizations have made working on possibilities the new standard of thinking and doing. They know how to harness and leverage people’s creativity in a way that many other organizations discount and even avoid.  

To some extent, innovation is a paradox. So many times, leadership wants people’s brilliant and different ideas, however, they don’t necessarily have the patience or confidence in letting it happen. Sometimes, they can let the sense of urgency impose quick results or a quick fix. 

Innovation, however, is an incremental process and entails hard work. People have to stay focused, be persistent, diligent and fully committed. 

 The easiest part of innovation is the creative problem-solving part, the first step in the process. Unless there is a process to manage ideas, leadership runs the risk of wasting not only the content, but also the goodwill that comes with it. 

The challenge can be in managing the flood of ideas people generate. Selecting the best ideas, and implementing and executing them, can call for the reallocation of resources from other key strategies and priorities. 

If people see no follow-through on the implementation and execution of their ideas, discouragement and skepticism can surface. 
People have to know they can be bold in their thinking, confident and unselfish in expressing their ideas and thoughts, trusting with their collaboration and have absolute permission to question everything and anything. A culture of innovation calls for mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual influence.  

 A final thought to mull over comes from author and consultant Edward de Bono: “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

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