Why succeeding with innovation is all about people

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Why succeeding with innovation is all about people

I deeply believe that understanding people, and how we and our brains function, is key to understanding why innovation does or does not happen. This belief stems from the three case studies I investigated for my doctoral dissertation, and has remained a corner stone of my thinking around innovation ever since.  I’d like to share some key realisations I’ve had over the years about the value of understanding people – and I am not talking about a focus on customer insights, nor about engaging outsiders in your innovation activities, brandied about under the buzzword Open Innovation.

The topics I would like to share some thoughts about are:

  • The thing about creativity.
  • People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.
  • Habits and assumptions can get in the way of successful innovation.
  • Diversity is key – and not without its challenges.
  • Understanding different personal preference and values helps.
  • Treat people like people, not numbers.
  • Engagement really matters.
  • What our old and new parts of the brain have got to do with it.


The Thing About Creativity

You can’t use up creativity; the more you use it, the more you have!
Maya Angelou – American Poet, Memoirist, and Civil Rights Activist

Have you ever asked a room full of grown-ups whether they believe they are creative and innovative?  In my experience, unless you are at an innovation conference, chances are that not many will raise their hand.  Yet if you ask a room full of kindergarten children, even asking the question might seem silly.   Indeed, a test that indicates levels of creativity conducted with 5-year olds indicates that 98% of them are hugely creative.  If the same test is conducted with 10-year olds this percentage has dropped to 30%, having deteriorated to 2% by the age of 25 – as shown in Figure 1.

What has happened between the ages of five and the age of 25?  Creativity has been educated out of us. As a consequence, our perception of our own creativity has gone down significantly, and we consider creativity and innovation to be the privilege of a select few.  Land and Jaraman put it succinctly when summarising their findings by saying that “non-creative behaviour is learned.”

Yet, if you think about it, all of us solve problems, and are creative in some way or other, throughout our lives. 

Figure 1 – The Decline of (the perception of) creativity 

Why does it matter whether we consider ourselves to be creative or not?  As innovation is a topic that can be found on the homepage of most organisations today, regardless of whether they are commercial businesses, not-for-profits, universities, or governmental institutions, employees feel that they are expected to be creative and innovative.  If they believe that they are not creative and innovative, this can cause considerable anxiety and stress.  Helping people understand this dynamic can sometimes be enough for them to reevaluate their assessment of their own creativity, and help them loose the anxiety that often goes hand in hand with the call for more innovation.


People Don’t Resist Change, They Resist Being Changed.

I believe that we are living in an unprecedented time of change.  The real danger for society is that people resist, ignore or run away from massive changes in their lives and consequently do themselves long-term damage.
Adele Theron – International Mentor and Executive Coach

It is often being said that people resist change.  I don’t believe that this is so.  I believe that what we resist is being changed, i.e. when someone tell us what to do, how to behave, or what to believe.  

Why is this relevant?  

All innovation is change, but not all change is innovation.  This means that in order to succeed with innovation we need to bring people on board.  The easiest way to do that is to help them understand why this innovation – change – is necessary and / or beneficial.  

I also believe that it is often overlooked that the people who are being asked to embrace a certain change are often the very ones who have put in place what the innovation is going to replace.  If that is so, then it should not come as a surprise that they resist.  

There is also a deeper reason for rejecting innovation, one which I believe to be deeply embedded in our education systems. From the early years of childhood we learn that certain things have certain uses, that there is right way to do certain things, which is further enforced when we start school.  We lean that there is generally one right answer to the questions we are being asked, and we better get it.  If we don’t, if we question the  answer, if we suggest an alternative, the likely consequence is ridicule, or to be declared to be either ‘not very bright’ or ‘rather difficult’.  So we learn quickly that we better search, and find, the one right answer.  While in our early days of learning and understanding there might indeed have been right and wrong answers, we seem to have internalised this so much that it has become a subconscious part of our worldview.

If I believe that there is one right way then, surely, if someone suggests a change to the way things are currently done, he or she implies that the way things are currently being done is wrong.  Naturally I will feel threatened in my professional credibility and professional honour and defend myself.  By the way, the notion that there is ‘one right way’ is as also embedded in the concept of ‘best practice’ that is so highly valued.  Yet those who embrace best practice without ensuring it is appropriately ‘translated’ into their context are setting themselves up for failure.

In the belief in ‘one right way’ there is one significant factor that is being ignored: time.  100 years ago most would have considered it to be ‘right’ for women to stay at home and look after the children.  50 years ago it would have been considered to be ‘the one right thing’ to seek a job for life.  25 years ago it was considered to be acceptable to smoke on airplanes.  I would like to put forward that there is only ever something that is most appropriate, given a specific context, and a particular point in time.  If we can accept this, we can let go of the fear that what we are doing is wrong and stop feeling criticised when a change is being proposed.


Habits and Assumptions Can Get In The Way of Successful Innovation 

The problem with assumptions is that we believe they are the truth.
Miguel Ruiz – Mexican Author, Spiritualist, Neo-Shaman

Wise words of Miguel Ruiz indeed.  Once we have become accustomed to doing something a certain way, it can be difficult to imagine that there are other ways of doing it.  A phenomenon beautifully captures in a quote from the children’s book Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne: “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.  It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.  And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t.”  

That habits and assumptions have the habit of getting in the way and are hindering innovation is an insight which stems from one of the case studies on the design and development of the Eurostar which I conducted as part of my PhD.  The Eurostar is a high speed train connecting the capitals of Belgium, France, and the UK, developed jointly by manufacturing consortia from these three countries (as neither country wanted to be left out).  Project leadership came to reside with the French, not least as they had years of experience of building high speed trains.  They felt they knew exactly how to proceed, even involving the very same people who had executed the latest TGV (traine du grand vitesse) development, the other were quite glad for it!  Yet one aspect was not taken into the equation: the Eurostar was not ‘just another TGV’.  There were several differences, but perhaps the most important one was that the TGV was running on dedicated lines, with a particular way of supplying the train with its power.  The Eurostar on the other hand needed what is called a ‘converter module’, a unit that picks up current for the power supply in four different ways.  Each country, and on top of it the Eurotunnel, had different ways of connecting with the trains power supply.  The result of this very late realisation caused both increases in cost and delays in commencing service.

While it might seem strange that something that is so important had been overlooked, from a human and neurological perspective it makes perfect sense.  Our brain aims for efficiency.  Brain research has shown that our brain stores information on similar things in similar places – you could say that our brain creates boxes – so that it knows ‘where to look’, not least in instances where we have to assess whether something we encounter is a potential threat quickly.

Knowing that we are prone to relying on our habits and assumptions helps to counteract such behaviour.  Rather than trying to figure out what our assumptions are, the easiest way to find out about them is to get together with people from different background and contexts.  They might have developed a different way of doing things, and are much more likely to be able to see where we make assumptions than people who think like us – which neatly leads to the second topic, diversity.


Diversity Is Key – And Not Without Its Challenges

Diversity drives innovation – when we limit who can contribute, we in turn limit what problems we can solve.
Telle Whitney – Former CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

People with different backgrounds and mindsets not only help elicit our assumptions, they also bring different knowledge, experience, and expertise to bear.  As I like to put it, innovation happens when connecting previously unconnected bodies of knowledge.  If you surround yourself with people of similar background and knowledge domains, the fruits of your innovation efforts will most likely be of incremental nature.

Yet while the different perspectives are key for creating novel solutions, these different perspectives also easily become the cause for misunderstandings, miscommunication and conflict.  When using words we assume that they mean the same to everyone.  Yet this is not true.  The same word can have very different meaning in different professional or cultural contexts which can lead to confusion, different conclusions, and consequently different actions.  I have been in situations where two people argue fiercely, yet to me it seemed like they were saying the same thing, they were just using different words.

But it is not only misunderstandings that make collaborating in diversity difficult. We also tend to like and trust those who are like us more than those from whom we differ.  In my experience, successful collaboration with people who have mindsets and values that are different from our own – ‘collaboration across communities’ – as I call it, relies on two aspects: one is  rational – I understand the reason or benefits of the collaboration; the other is emotional – liking or at least respecting and appreciating a person / their contribution.  To satisfy the former it is key to ensure that all collaboration partners derive some benefits, as valued by them; satisfying the latter can be achieved by giving people an opportunity to get to know and respect each other; very often it is something outside the professional sphere that allows people to connect, to discover some shared interests, and as soon as some shared interests are discovered, the other person does not feel so ‘other’ any more.  The graph below summarises the consequences of different constellations of presence / absence of respect on the one hand, and benefits for one or all on the other.

Figure 2 – Foundations of Collaboration

Understanding Different Personal Preference and Values Helps

We don’t see things how they are, we see them as we are.
Anaïs Nin – French-Cuban American Diarist, Essayist, and Novelist

Ask five people with different values and mindsets to describe the same situation, and you will likely get five somewhat different answers.  Through our upbringing, education, and professional context, all of us have developed our own particular set of lenses through which we see the world.  These lenses filter out what is not important to us, and amplify that which is.  A focus on what is important to us gets stronger when we face uncertainty – i.e. situations of change, so much so that we might tune out anything else.  This is why it really helps to be aware of personal preference and values when seeking to engage others in change and innovation.  What I mean is, that different things are important to different people.  When facing change, for one person understanding how the change will affect personal relationships is the most important aspect; for another having facts and figures is critical; for yet another it is addressing a fear of loss of control, or being associated with failure.  

Understanding what someone’s greatest concerns about change are, and addressing these upfront, can increase chances of our change or innovation being adopted significantly.  If we explain implications for people and relationships to a person whose focus is on facts and figures, we will have lost them right away; and vice versa.  This does not mean that we are telling different people different stories, it just means that we are telling the story in a different order. Only when we address fears and concerns first do we have a chance the the person is actually still listening. Any experience of fear or threat leads us to switch off, and start thinking about a possible line of defence.


Treat People Like People, Not Numbers

The problem is that most people spend their lives looking, but nor truly seeing.
Joe Nara – Cuban-born American Author, Public Speaker, and Former FBI Agent

In this time of constant bombardment of information, through an ever greater number of different channels, our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015 – which means that our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish, which is 9 seconds.  We are also easily distracted, and, according to research, check our email inbox 30 times an hour if we are an office worker.

How much attention are we actually giving to the here and now, and the person who is right in front of us?  How much does our mind wander, to what we should have done, what we have to do, quickly checking our phone, sending a short message?  How well can you describe your partner or child?  I still remember the shock I felt when a photographer, telling about his work with the New York Police Department for missing children, pointed out that a large majority of parents are unable to accurately describe their missing children!

Thinking about it, I started to wonder how much it has to do with the fact that we do not often sit facing one another!  We sit in cars, next to each other; we sit in front of the television, next to each other; we sit in front of our computer screens, alone…  So perhaps it is not surprising that we are no longer able to describe those around us.  By the way, that was back in the early 2000s, before everyone had their face glued to the screen of their smart phone. If you are going into a restaurant today, how many people concentrate on the people right in front of them, engaging in conversation, and how many are constantly distracted by their phone, communicating with people who are elsewhere?  Even when walking in the streets, how many people have their faces in their hones rather than paying attention to their surroundings?  How often do you notice a beautiful flower, a butterfly or a bird – or the rubbish that so many discard without a concern for what it might do do our environment?

Human interaction is increasingly being replaced by interactions in the virtual space.  Yet how does it make you feel when you are talking to someone and they do not make eye contact?

Being seen, as a person, as an individual, is important to all of us.  Feeling ignored, not seen, not listened to, not only undermines self-confidence, it can also trigger resistance or even boycott.


Engagement Really Matters

When people are financially invested, they want a return.  When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.
Simon Sinek, British-born American Author and Motivational Speaker

We can observe the consequences of people feeling ignored, not seen, not listened to, being treated like numbers, in the annual engagement surveys.  In their 2017 global workforce, Gallup found that 85% of participants were either not engaged, or even actively disengaged.  This statistic is particularly stark when compared with levels of engagement of employees who work for non-profit organisation, which is 93%.

As the Australian-born corporate culture specialist Keith Ayers put it, “Lack of employee engagement is like a cancer, eating away at an organisation’s vital organs.”  While the happiness of human beings should matter anyway, there is also a very strong economic argument for working to improve employees happiness at work, and with it levels of engagement.  Drawing on Gallup’s research again, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability.  Translating that into dollars, for every $10,000 you pay you are wasting $3,400.

In the context of innovation there is another powerful argument why you should worry about levels of engagement: disengaged employees are non-innovating employees.  When wanting to understand the climate for innovation, US-based company Cargill (founded 1865, revenue of $113.5 billion in 2019) does not ask questions about innovation, it looks at levels of engagement.  The fact is, you cannot tell people to innovate.  You have to inspire them, you have to paint a vision that they want to help achieve.  Unless people are engaged, they are not likely to persevere with innovation when the going gets tough – as it invariably tends to do. 


What Our Old and New Parts of the Brain Have Got To Do With It

I apologise if my limbic system has misinterpreted your gesture of emotional support.
Neal Stephenson – American Writer Known for His Works of Speculative Fiction

This brings us full circle to the first topic of creativity, and how creative we perceive ourselves to be.  I mentioned that so many of us feel we are not creative and innovative, that the ever louder call for innovation causes us discomfort and anxiety.  It is not for nothing that fear is considered to be the greatest enemy of innovation.  There are physiological reasons why fear disables creativity and innovation.  Let’s take a look at a simplified version of our brain.  There is the ‘old’ or limbic part of the brain, called amygdala, which I will refer to as the ‘red zone’, and the ‘new’ part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, which I will refer to as the ‘blue zone’.

It is important to know that the amount of energy available to our brain is fixed, and that energy is available to either the red zone or the blue; it cannot be in both parts at the same time.  Whether the energy is in the blue or the red part of our brain depends on what we experience, how we feel at any given point in time.  We are ‘in the red zone’ when we feel physically threatened, experience fear, anxiety, or guilt, perceive a lack of clarity, being judged or treated unfairly, feel rejection or exclusion, or are not listened to and just told how to think.  All of this triggers the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, where the body releases stress hormones, increases our heart rate, and increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles.  The red zone is focused on ‘self’; it is the seat of anger, fear, and depression; it is about impulses and desires; it is where ‘low-order learning’ takes place.  This means it is about memorising rather than applying knowledge, and importantly for innovation, if we are ‘in the red’, we resist change.

The blue zone is triggered more or less by conditions opposite to the ones just described: when we feel safe, respected, trusted, loved, being listened to, getting authentic attention, being acknowledged and included, having clarity and permission, experiencing generosity, and where others show vulnerability.  The blue zone is about reflection, managing our impulsive desires, it is the seat of affiliation, generosity, and good will, and the home of imagination and creativity.  When we are ‘in the blue’, high-order learning takes place, the kind of learning where we apply knowledge in different contexts, and combine things to create something new – just what we need in order to innovate.

Yet if not many people consider themselves to be creative and innovative, where will their energy go when they hear the call for ‘more innovation’?  Most certainly into the red. Figure 3 below summarises the basics. 

Figure 3


Why succeeding with innovation is all about people

Understanding that most people do not feel particularly creative and innovative, and will therefore feel threatened by a call for more innovation, and knowing that diversity is essential for successful innovation, I can use these insights to alleviate any anxiety, by explaining that innovation is something that offers everyone an opportunity to get involved and contribute, with exactly who and what they are.

That – a role for everyone, exactly who they are and whatever they have to contribute – is the true beauty of innovation for me.  And for all the topics shared above, it is very clear to me, that in order to succeed with innovation, understanding, and caring about, people is key.


This article is based on my ‘regular irregular’ mailout from the 15th October 2021.
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