Innovation and Neuroscience

I recently contributed a chapter for a forthcoming book, "The Global Innovation Science Handbook", which will be published by McGraw Hill Professional some time this fall. The chapter is titled Innovation and Neuroscience. When the editor approached me to write this chapter, I was equally excited and a bit nervous about it. After all, I'm not a neuroscientist. However, I have come to the conclusion that most successful innovation can be attributed to the cognitive attributes possessed by people who are good at innovating. I thought it would be fun to explore the latest research in neuroscience and see if I could glean any insights that could help to codify the innovation process. I hadn't seen much written on the topic, so I felt that my expertise in innovation would be my guide as I searched for ways to better understand and articulate what goes on in the minds of successful innovators.

This quest to codify the innovation process began several years ago when I worked in a product design and innovation consulting firm. I found that I was very uncomfortable with the standard reasons why my team was able to help clients innovate; that we used multidisciplinary teams, or that we did ethnographic research, or had our roots in design didn't feel quite right to me. These statements were true, but I saw many unsuccessful innovation attempts result from many of the same types of ingredients to the process.

I approached my research for this chapter as i would approach any innovation project. I began with researching the typical sources of innovation; topics on creativity, lateral thinking, cognitive connections. I followed where they took me in terms of how I could identify what it was that truly set innovative people apart. My overall goal for years has been to be able to articulate what to look for in a person with the aptitude for innovation, to be able to teach innovation if it could be taught beyond introducing new ideas to people with the right aptitude, and to build solid processes for innovation within large companies.

Along the way, several of my initial assumptions proved to be valid. Innovation is not random, cool spaces and total absence of structure will not enhance the process, consumers cannot solve the problem for you, and that the current business environment is not conducive to innovation. On the other hand, I was able to change my mind on several assumptions. From my research, it appears that our minds are naturally geared toward the type of thinking that is conducive to innovation, but we are also naturally geared to thought processes that can simultaneously keep it from happening. Innovation can be taught, but only to if we are able to encourage the cognitive processes that are conducive to innovation, and discourage the thoughts that keep them from happening.

I love it when my work changes my mind; without continuously learning and changing we will never move ahead. I feel that the topic of how to consistently innovate, and why most companies find it difficult is the key to many economic struggles we are currently encountering. I'll begin a series of posts relative to my recent findings and the types of reactions I get as I put them into action.

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