Getting out of the Red Zone – making innovation more comfortable

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Innovation Leadership Forum Inside Innovation Dinner

22nd June 2011
© Dr Bettina von Stamm 22nd June 2011

I am delighted to welcome you to the first Inside Innovation Dinner. And
do not worry, this is not going to be a long speech – after all, we would
like you to come back! This is just meant to provide a little food for
thought, to accompany the delicious food that is about to be served in a
few moments. Instead of an ʻamuse boucheʼ for your taste buds at the
Inside Innovation Dinner we are going to offer something to stimulate
your brain cells, an ʻamuse cerveauʼ.

The ʻamuse cerveauʼ we are offering today is about “Getting out of the
Red Zone – making innovation more comfortable”

Please tell me if I am wrong, but I think there no longer is much need to
spend time explaining why innovation is important. It is high on the
agenda in most organisations, and quite understood to be important not
only for the wellbeing of any kind of organisation but also for the
wellbeing and continuation of mankind. People tend to agree (perhaps
too unquestioningly), we need to innovate. So for the past 10 – if not 15
years or more – we have heard a lot of talk of innovation. You will find
the ʻright kind of talk and languageʼ in most organisations – but this is
not always followed by convincing actions.

What kind of reaction do you get in your organisation when you
mention ʻinnovationʼ (or have you stopped using the word)? Do people
get excited, do they roll their eyes, or do they get that funny, slightly
pained look that communicates: I know it is important, but do we have

Iʼd like to share some thoughts what drives such discomfort, what
happens as a consequence of it, and what some remedies might be.
I guess I could also have called this ʻamuse xxxʼ from NPD to
neuroscience! For me an interest in human nature when seeking to
understand innovation emerged quite early on, in fact it was one of the
major insights from my PhD (94-98). In my PhD I had sought to
understand better why, despite all the knowledge around success and
failure in new product development we had even then (when it was still
called new product development and not innovation), success rates did
not really seem to improve much.

1And now, with much attention being paid to innovation, for the at least
10-15 years which of course is broader that new product development,
the same seems to be true: we know a lot about innovation, what it
takes to create innovative organisation; we know innovative firms when
we encounter them, we can all name some. Yet if we look at survey
results the innovation ambitions are in stark contrast to the levels of
satisfaction with what is being achieved.

Like coming up with innovative ideas, getting insight into innovation –
why it does or does not happen – is often fueled by observation, and by
combining insights from different fields of knowledge.

Different personal preferences

An observation I would like to share goes back almost 20 years, when I
set out to work self-employed after completing my MBA in 1992. Often
when I talked about it, I got the response how brave I had been, how
courageous. Somehow that did not sit right with me! Somehow joining
a large organisation, probably even in a job I could not feel passionate
about, would have been the far more risky, brave decision for me to
take! Compared to embracing such a challenge working for myself
seemed the easy option, the easy way out. It became very clear to me,
we do obviously have different understandings what constitutes risk,
bravery, and courage…

I think this insight – obvious as it might seem – is very important in the
context of innovation. We do have different personal preferences when
it comes to risk, uncertainty and ambiguity. Those with a great 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, theyʼd rather if
things stayed as they are.

Here I always like to throw in that people in most organisations get
promoted based on achieving company goals. I would like to ask in
how many organisations here ʻcost cuttingʼ, ʻimproving efficienciesʼ and
ʻdownsizingʼ have been on the menu over the past 4 to 5 years? Think
about what kind of mindset is required for that… I would be surprised
to find that those who excel at cost cutting and efficiencies are also
comfortable with risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

So what happens when we are uncomfortable, or to put it more drastic,
feel threatened?
This is the bit where neuroscience come into it.

Insights from neuroscience

What I am saying now may be rather simplified but I think it makes the

For our purpose here we simply divide our brain into two parts: the
ʻoldʼ or limbic part of the brain, called Amygdala, to which I will refer to
as the ʻred zoneʼ. Then there is the ʻnewʼ part, called Prefrontal Cortex,
to which I will refer to as the ʻblue zoneʼ. Each part has different
functions, and being in the red or the blue is triggered by different
things. I will come back to this in just a moment. 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

Letʼs 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. What
else? It is focused on self, sensitive to threat, the seat of anger, fear
and depression, about fight or flight and instinctive; it is about impulses
and desires; it is also about low order learning (e.g. memorising rather
than applying knowledge), and importantly, resistant to change.

We end up in the red zone through things such as some perhaps more
obvious 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.

What about the blue zone? It is reflective, managing our impulsive
desires, slower and more resource intensive; It is the seat of affiliation,
generosity and good will; it is the home of imagination and creativity,
where options are considered, and high learning takes place, i.e.
combining things – did I not mention this before…?

We get into the blue zone fundamentally by feeling safe; this involves
feeling respected, trusted and loved, being listened to – getting
authentic attention, being acknowledged and included, having clarity
and permission, experiencing generosity and others showing

An important aspect is that the energy consumption of the blue zone is
more or less fixed. Which means if the red zone draws energy away
there is nothing left for the blue zone, of course also meaning those
things hosted by the blue zone such as reflection, consideration and
creativity are not available to us – it is hard to think straight when we are
angry or stressed (in fact, we see ʻred …).

Now letʼs come back to our starting point: asking people in our
organisations to get involved in innovation. If risk, uncertainty and
ambiguity are outside their comfort zone – which they are for many
people indeed, which zone you think will be triggered?

So, building on the above, getting out of the red, making innovation
more comfortable depends on three things: (a) and acknowledgement
and acceptance of differences in personal tolerance of risk, uncertainty
and ambiguity, (b) understanding that innovation is likely to push many
people – and perhaps especially managers and decision makers in many
organisations – into the red zone, and (c) finding ways to get those
people back into the blue zone.

How to do that? Well, we have the list of things that make people feel
safe and get them back into the blue zone:
– Involving them by perhaps asking their opinion, and listen to them
with an open mind (and staying calm and open when they give it to
– Respecting what is currently in place (they might have been the ones
putting it there!)
– Providing clarity, for example by making our innovation as real as
possible, be it through story telling or prototypes
And finally, I also find that humour can be very helpful. Laughter
dissipates tension and enables the connection of synapsis in our brain

So, dinner is about to be served, how about discussing how red and
blue zones manifest themselves in your organisation or team? How to
people act? What is being said?

We'd love to hear from you

Do you have any questions or thoughts in the context of innovation then please get in touch!

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