Stifled by a risk-averse culture? Worn out by collective brainstorms? Unable to move ideas into action? It doesn't have to be that way. Hans-Werner Hagemann, co-author of the new book The Leading Brain, believes that neuroscientific insights can help teams and individuals throughout organizations come up with better ideas and implement them more effectively.
I met with him recently, and he gave me five tips to get started:
1. Create space for individual thinking.
Teamwork is great, but it's usually overrated. In most companies there seems to be an unspoken rule that team accomplishments are better than individual achievements. A team is usually faster than a single brain at solving a crossword puzzle. But if it comes to creating a crossword puzzle, the team will nearly always lose against a solo thinker. In our companies, too many teams are asked to create crossword puzzles. It's time to rethink the tasks that you give to teams; and when you are working in teams, make sure to provide periods of silence to allow for pause and reflection so that the individuals can better engage with the task.
2. Stay away from those brainstorming techniques.
Most brainstorming techniques inundate us with standardized rules and yet expect creative output -- but this actually hinders our success. Watch how children make up games: they have fun simply by inventing ways to play. But what happens if you try to give them rules for how to play better? Likely it will stifle their creativity and not provide the critical ingredients needed for innovation: fun, fear, and focus. Creative ideas emerge when our brains combine three neurotransmitters: dopamine (fun); noradrenaline (fear); and acetylcholine (focus). Leaders must know how to create an environment that stimulates innovation: by increasing the fun factor, creating a challenge, and removing possible distractions.
3. Nurture emotions at the workplace.
Too often you might be confronted with an explicit or unspoken attitude of "let's be rational" or "don't be emotional." This leads to inhibition, which is the process when the rational parts of your brain start a battle with the more emotional parts, which in turn wastes the extra energy that is needed to inspire innovation in the first place. Most good ideas come from deepest despair or greatest excitement. Emotions have magical powers, and they provide the energy that you need for finding new ways to meet others' needs.
4. Set challenges that seem to be ridiculously high.
But at the same time, trust in your team members and give them a feeling of confidence. This is the tension our brains need in order to leave their comfort zone and switch to a radical innovation mode, rather than trying to move on with step changes. Larry Page from Google is a master of this method: his "moonshots" are legendary. For example, his goal to achieve immortality. As recently reported, 700 years for a human life span are not completely unrealistic anymore. It always seems to be impossible, until someone does it.
5. Sleep and give sleep a much better reputation in business.
Our brains need 7-9 hours every day to work best, according to the most recent advice by the National Sleep Foundation. Albert Einstein slept 10 hours each night. With too little sleep, our brains are unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled appropriate responses -- instead, the amygdala (part of the fear system in our brains) shifts into high gear, and we become short tempered, impatient, and moody. Even small naps can help: according to a NASA study with test pilots, 26 minutes of sleep increases the brain's performance on average by more than 34 percent. Ironically, in many companies it is somehow heroic to be able to get along with only six hours of sleep or less.
Come to think of it, all these suggestions resemble one big conclusion: If you want to innovate, think and act like a child. It's a no-brainer.