A Cognitive Approach to Innovation

by Alexandra Frischen

A Cognitive Approach to InnovationInnovation and creativity are usually thought of in two ways: One, as an individual attribute – some people just have that certain quality that allows them to constantly come up with bright new ideas. Two, as a desirable property of an organizational culture – some companies (think Google or Apple) seem to sense what consumers want before they themselves know what they want, and produce beautiful products to suit. Much research has been conducted on both ‘individual’ and ‘organizational’ innovation, but what interests me most are the similarities between the two.

Companies Are Like Brains

Companies organize themselves within a formal hierarchy, usually with the CEO at the top and the most junior employees at the bottom. Even so-called ‘flat’ hierarchies are hierarchies nevertheless; there is almost always someone with more decision making power than others. Employees are connected to each other via a network of manager-subordinate relationships. For example, Suzy is Simon’s and Jason’s manager, and Simon is the manager of John, Helen, and Rob, and so on. These relationships form the command and control architecture that connects groups of employees with different specialisms or roles.

The human brain utilizes a remarkably similar hierarchical structure. At the front of the brain, the so-called ‘executive’ frontal lobes perform higher order tasks such as reasoning and decision making. At the back of the brain, processing of sensory inputs takes place. Information is continually sent back and forth between areas responsible for higher- and lower-level processing. Through such iterative processing, a cognitive representation of the world is created that can be acted upon and even transformed into something new – that’s what imagination is.

Individuals Matter, But ‘The Whole’ Is More Important

Many businesses adhere to the ‘individual’ view of innovation and pour a lot of resources into recruiting creative people. The implicit expectation is that when these star performers come up with the next big thing, everyone will pull together and make it come true. But does having a few creative individuals guarantee results?

Probably not, because this approach fails to consider what’s going on at the organizational level. Concentrating on a few star performers is like trying to improve cognitive functioning in a patient who has suffered brain injury by stimulating a few individual brain cells. Neurologists know that connectivity is much more important than activity in any individual neuron. When the injured brain recovers, it does not ‘heal’ damaged cells so much as it simply reorganizes itself – new connections are forged or old ones strengthened to regain lost functionality. Just like neural impulses are sent from one region of the brain to another via pathways, so innovative impulses traverse the organizational hierarchy in a business, from one employee to another. Even if you are lucky enough to have a star employee with a great idea, that individual creative insight has no real value unless it is picked up, contributed to, transformed, and implemented by others in the hierarchy.

Individual creativity does not originate from a single cell or localized area in the brain. Rather, creativity emerges from diffuse activity that involves pretty much the entire brain. When it comes to innovation in the business world, it is similarly important to focus not only on isolated performers but on the effectiveness of the network as a whole. When employees are working together smoothly, it is much more likely that innovative ideas, wherever they originate, are successfully implemented. Ask yourself: are Google one of the most innovative companies primarily because they have more creative employees than other companies? Or is that they are better than most at implementing innovations? I’d argue for the latter.

There are many factors that influence the potential of a company to innovate. Among those is one thing that all companies, regardless of industry, size, or structure, have in common: They depend on their employees working together efficiently in support of innovation. Research shows that innovation thrives when employees (1) incentivize each other to promote an open and rewarding environment for idea generation; (2) communicate clearly with each other to further awareness and understanding of novel concepts; (3) are flexible and open to new and untested approaches; and (4) take action to get things moving. All of these emphasize the interplay between individuals, which drives the implementation of innovation. If you want your business to innovate, don’t just focus on generating individual ideas, focus also on the factors that bring them together and get them done!

What The Brain Can Teach Us About Creativity And Innovation At The Organizational Level

By looking at the way the brain functions, we can gain important insights that can be applied to innovation in the business world.

  • Think of your business as a brain. The brain consists of interconnected neurons, your company consists of interconnected employees.
  • Individual creativity emerges from diffuse activity in the entire brain. Your company’s potential to innovate depends on the interplay between employees across the organizational hierarchy.

To improve your company’s capacity for innovation:

  • Identify which ‘paths’ through the company hierarchy are important for creating new products and services.
  • Identify employees who might be impeding the smooth work flow along those paths.
  • Increase the efficiency of those paths by coaching behaviours that improve the interplay between employees and thus promote the implementation of innovation.

image credit: neurosciencenews.com

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A Cognitive Approach to InnovationAlexandra Frischen is the Director at Rozelle Analytics Ltd. in the UK. She co-developed the Innovation Flow Analysis for Business (IFAB), an online business assessment and coaching tool that analyzes organizational capacity for innovation.” She teaches, mentors, and writes for many publications, including: Frontiers in Emotion Science; Visual Cognition; Psychological Science; and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

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  1. Great article – wonderfully written. Will be sharing with my company colleagues.

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