What Innovation Can Learn from Depression

by Scott Bowden

WhatIn his new book A First-Rate Madness, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi posits that some of the key attributes associated with depression and mental illness (realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity) also provide the foundation for successful leadership in politics, military engagements, and business.  As I listened to an interview with Dr. Ghaemi, head of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, I wondered if these same characteristics of leaders suffering from depression might also be useful tools for those of us tasked with delivering innovation in our organizations.

The first depression-related quality Dr. Ghaemi cites is realism. Studies have suggested that individuals with mental illnesses have a stronger understanding of reality than their non-depressed counterparts. From an innovation standpoint, this deeper understanding of what is real and what is not real is clear in terms of providing an innovator with the ability to discern whether one far-fetched idea is more likely to come to fruition rather than another one. While we want innovators to think outside the box and, in some cases, dream of new horizons, a firm grasp of reality is also critical to ensuring that scarce resources are not invested in an idea that has little chance of becoming real.

Another quality cited by Dr. Ghaemi is empathy. Depressed individuals are better able to understand the plight of those around them. In terms of innovation, this could map to the importance of taking into consideration the perspectives of co-workers as well as customers in assessing the feasibility of a given innovation. The apocryphal view of a genius innovator is that he or she relentlessly pursues an idea and ignores any negative feedback from those around him or her. However, we know that every genius stood on the shoulders of many of those around him or her, and in the end one could reason that an innovator working cooperatively with colleagues, while still being inspired to pursue great ideas, is more likely to succeed than someone completely removed from social interactions. From a customer standpoint, it is well-known that even the greatest innovation will fail if customers do not warm to the idea or product, so possessing empathy in terms of thinking about how a customer will react to an innovation is a critical step in the innovation process.

The next attribute of mental illness that can serve as a positive force for innovators is resilience, or the ability to recover from a setback. One of the most frequently-cited themes in the study of innovation is the importance of working through failure as part of the process, especially since such a high percentage of ideas end up never making it into real products or services. Any innovator who has not experienced failure is probably not trying enough new ideas. Thus an innovator must possess the quality of resilience to be able to bounce back from those defeats and renew their efforts on another front with even greater vigor.

The final characteristic cited by Dr. Ghaemi is creativity. This has the most obvious tie to innovation in terms of a positive quality, and the innovation literature is heavily-laden with parallels between the creativity of artists, musicians, and other fields and the skills needed to be a successful innovator.

So what does this mean for those of us working in the innovation arena? I am not suggesting that innovators should seek to become depressed to improve their performance, but I do believe that the ideas presented in Dr. Ghaemi’s thesis can help structure our approaches to innovation. We know the importance of creativity to innovation, but how many of us spend time thinking about realism, empathy, or resiliency? Dr. Ghaemi’s thesis can serve as a checklist to use as we work on ideas in our innovation processes. When we feel an idea being pulled by a dream perhaps too far from reality, we might want to take a moment to split out a more achievable subset of that idea to pursue in the near-term (while never losing sight of the dream, which is still of critical importance). We should also perform an empathy check as we are working on our ideas to make sure we’re not losing sight of our co-workers (whose ideas and assistance will usually be instrumental in our ultimate success) as well as our customers, who possess the final vote on whether our innovation has truly created value.

Finally, we should always think about the resiliency of great political, military, and business leaders (Dr. Ghaemi writes about Lincoln, Sherman, and Ted Turner, among others) and how they were able to overcome the darkest moments in their careers to recover and move forward to ultimate success. Although we as innovators will never face the kinds of situations some of these leaders encountered in their lifetimes, their strength and conviction are things we should certainly emulate.

image credit: cnn

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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