Progressive business leaders are building innovative actions, climates and ultimately cultures that align with “brain-friendly” science. In this article we outline some practical steps that leaders can take to support neuroscience in innovation development for their corporate organizations.

As the science of human motivations and actions are better understood, organizations are looking to enhance corporate cultures (and underlying actions) aligned to how the brain responds, creates and innovates. We call them “brain-friendly” innovative climates. In this article we cite examples of how leaders are using EASE (Empathize, Associate, Synergize and Engage) to use neuroscience as the basis for an effective innovation effort.

An Observation on Creativity and Innovation

When Steve Jobs was asked about creativity and innovation, he said: 

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they could connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

Apple was an early innovator in building innovative climates and cultures that aligned with underlying human drivers, often based on a basic understanding of neuroscience. The organization recognized the need to identify, recruit and engage individuals with a creative perspective, and direct them towards new thinking. To support these individuals, the organization used neuroscience as a basis for creating a set of channels, resources and tools to allow new ideas and their owners to flourish. This remains an important part of the culture of Apple and hundreds of other high performing organizations.

Putting Climate Before Culture

Within this article we will reference both climates and cultures of innovation, and the distinction between them both is important. “Climates” of innovation relate to the actions, channels and tools to support new idea development within an organization. When these have been established a “climate” of innovation could be correctly sighted. However, when these resources and resulting actions become a daily part of the organization, a “culture” of innovation can said to be in place. Culture is less accessible and more complex, so change can be frustratingly slow. Climate, however, remains more nimble, and concrete in how it arouses employee motivation and impacts performance.

Culture is “in part a learned defense mechanism to avoid uncertainty and anxiety.” Edward Schein

Building EASE (Empathize, Associate, Synergize, Engage) Into Your Organization

In order to build both a climate and culture of innovation, we have outlined below a series of steps that companies can take, that consider neural responses from employees. It is important to note that these are not the only actions that a company should take, but rather, are a series of steps that any company should consider:

Empathize: Never forget the role of psychological safety, and empathy in creating a climate where customers’ and employees’ insights are translated into experiments and opportunities to delight the customers via new value added products, and services. Pfizer’s “Dare to Try” initiative is an excellent example where an organization has sought to build empathy (using a Design Thinking-mindset) at scale, across a huge, risk-averse organization. This effort is supported through a series of actions, including employee facilitators trained on a Design Thinking skillset, and utilizing them to engage the rest of the organization in addressing key customer issues. Facilitators are provided with ongoing resources and tools, and are constantly encouraged to apply their skills to drive innovative ideas. Direct business results and ROI are tracked and regularly reported to leadership.

Associate: Making associations between divergent and dissimilar ideas activates the brain (i.e. left frontopolar cortex) that is linked to creativity. It is important that organizations create climates where employees are exposed to unconventional ideas and can find solace in supportive thinkers, as well as access underutilized resources to help push ideas forward. Intuit’s “Innovation Catalyst Network” is part of a broader ecosystem of innovative resources, where a key group of employees are encouraged to network, share thinking and generate results for the organization. This network has been an important driver in the success of Intuit in recent years and is actively supported by the organization’s CEO.

Synergize: The brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) can pick up on mixed messaging and seemingly opposing agendas and priorities. Flexible thinking and openness are compromised if the brain cannot solve these dilemmas. In response, companies should design climates where transparency is encouraged, in an effort to bring more alignment of actions over time. A recent case study of a digital transformation effort at Volvo Cars offers insights into how competing concerns were managed when the organization went through a radical shift in how they implemented innovative actions. Read more here.

Engage. Increasingly Innovation Program and HR leaders are understanding the neural science of intrinsic motivators and personality types. With these efforts they are recognizing the different skills needed to create, select, build and release innovative ideas. Taken a step further, organizations are defining different innovation roles / personality types, assessing innovators against a set of criteria, and assigning individuals to work on ideas, depending on the needs at a specific point of the life cycle. A materials manufacturing company recently assessed their 250 most innovative employees to determine their “innovation personality” types. This then helped determine which ideas the individuals would be allocated to develop, based on the needs of that idea and where it sat in the development lifecycle. Based on the success of this effort, and their desire to support a broader culture of innovation, they are now considering how to use innovation personality assessment as part of their hiring process.

Remember, these are just some samples of how progressive leaders are considering how neuroscience can impact the innovative capacity of an organization. Feel free to suggest actions that you have seen successfully implemented within the comment section below.

Feel free to reach out to the authors to receive a simple list of innovative actions that align with neuroscience to drive a climate and culture of innovation. This simple, practical list can be helpful for forward thinking innovation leaders.

Authors: Anthony Ferrier and Armin Pajand

This article was initially published in Innovation Management