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innovation works a lot like our brains

How Successful Innovation Efforts Mimic How Our Brain Works

Do you remember the last time you had strong physical reation when learning something new? Maybe your pulse started to race or your mind felt like it was going to explode. That's the chemical and electrical reaction that takes place in the brain when we learn something or develop a new insight. 

Neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman explains how this works. When we learn something new, “we are creating new connections (which become) part of the overall network.” When we learn, it is not a single stroke of genius, it is not a flash that comes out of thin air, Eagleman says. “Everything you learn is in relation to things you already know, a network of associations.” We are physically changing our brain. Dr. Eagleman goes on to say: “The main way that learning gets into the brain is by engagement in the material, and this requires you be curious and care.” Insights favor the connected mind.

Innovation works the same way. Over the past several years, I have researched how the brain processes information, and I started to make some connections and realized: Successful innovation efforts mimic how the brain works. Here’s how…

Successful innovation seldom happens by getting people in a room together to brainstorm creative ideas and hoping for the bolt of lightning or the single stroke of genius. Instead innovation requires information gathering and data collection from multiple sources or “senses.” We need to do our homework.

Your brain gathers inputs and collects information constantly through all of the senses. Your skin acts like a “fabric of sensors” transmitting information. Your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and other senses, such as your ability to detect balance and temperature, all send a vast number of signals to the brain. This information is then processed, mostly during sleep, when our brain shuts down the senses, works with the inputs collected, tries things out, weaves ideas together, and builds connections and insights. Have you ever woken up with the answer to yesterday’s problem? Sleep inspires insights.

Innovation depends on the same mechanism, the same data gathering process we see in the brain. Successful teams do their homework. These teams gather as much information as possible from a variety of sources throughout the innovation life cycle (see below). They don’t just rely on what they already know. Successful teams study market trends, customer insights, and technology trends. These teams collect data from consumers and non-consumers, inside and outside industry examples. These teams can get inspiration from other disciplines, including by studying the natural world.BMGI's Innovation Life Cycle

Recently, I worked with a manufacturing company that took time to study 160 global market trends and determine which ones would impact their customers, their industry and their business. They used this information to push through existing psychological barriers, made new connections, and added new ideas to their innovation pipeline.

Innovation Requires the Use of a Rapid Iterative, Yet Systematic Life Cycle Process 

Structure does not stifle innovation, it actually enables it! There are billions and billions of neurons in the brain each connected to approximately 10,000 other neurons creating about 100 trillion connections all the time. The language of the brain, the process of making connections, is very structured and systematic. Each neuron has “arms,” one of which generates electrical signals and then triggers a release of chemicals. Another neuron then detects these chemicals, which causes that neuron to make electrical signals and so on. Other cells, even more numerous than neurons, called glial cells provide the “glue” or foundation that allows the neurons to function. Some neuroscientists say glial cells have not gotten the recognition they deserve, and may also be a source of imagination and thought. While scientists are still exploring the mechanics of exactly how the brain works, in short, we know the brain follows an extremely fast, yet very structured process.

Innovation teams who have been successful have followed a similar rapid, intensive yet structured process.

A financial services company team was in the front-end of innovation process, and needed to gather customer insight data within five weeks. We followed a structured approach to ethnography (the practice of studying and observing how customers try to get their “jobs done” by chosen methods and solutions), interviews and surveys, and collected a significant amount of data using an iterative learning approach. We identified the importance and satisfaction of outcome expectations from a representative sample of customers. As a result, this team learned that what they thought were the most important outcome expectations were in fact not that important from the customer’s perspective. This led to more targeted development of specific solution ideas and prototypes that had a much higher probability of customer adoption when fully commercialized.

Innovation Requires Curiosity and an Emotional Connection 

We need to care about the subject or task at hand. Again from Neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, “When you try to learn something new, you have to have something to hook it to. It needs to be salient to you.” Many Montessori schools understand this well. When children in a Montessori school try to learn mathematics, it is tied to something the student is interested in, like sports or history—it has a “hook.”

Caring is critical to learning and to your innovation efforts. Have you ever been on a team that struggled to find the inspiration? Your teams will do what you ask them to do. They will go through the motions of identifying innovation opportunities and developing new products, services, processes or business models.

But if you want your teams to come up with the most robust solutions, if you want them to retain what they learned and insource innovation skills, you must develop an environment that allows people to care. Hook the innovation efforts to something they care about on an emotional level. Help them discover a shared emotional connection to the change.

The Best Ideas are Part of a Larger Fabric of Human Experience

For innovations to succeed, the ideas we create must be married with a market need. Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist from University of Chicago, defines true creativity as the “… interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context.” In his book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he states, “Creativity is to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added to the culture.”

When you learn new things, your brain is taking inputs and connecting them to things you already know. The brain does not store information as single pieces but rather by creating networks of associations. It is the same with new innovation ideas. A great idea is only great if it is networked and connected to a customer need.

Brain functioning is a wonderful metaphor for how to innovate. For more information on how to achieve a higher success rate with your innovation opportunities, visit

Dana Ginn is a senior client partner with BMGI. This article was originally published on LinkedIn. You can follow Dana on LinkedIn here.

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