The Neuroscience of Innovation. How Your Own Brain Limits Your Creative Thinking by Susan Robertson

The Neuroscience of Innovation. How Your Own Brain Limits Your Creative Thinking by Susan Robertson

Several neuroscience principles limit our ability to creatively solve problems and generate innovative ideas. Understanding some of these principles can help you optimize your creative thinking and innovation processes.

While your brain is working all the time, there are serious energy constraints.

The brain stores no fuel, and running on empty degrades performance significantly. Therefore, it needs frequent breaks from high energy usage.One of the places you experience this brain energy constraint most acutely is during the brainstorming phase. It’s a fast and furious pace of generating ideas, potentially for a long time. Leaders have always known that taking breaks from ideation makes for better results, and this neuroscience principle is obviously why. However, it’s also important to help people understand they actually need to take a brain break, and to have the willpower to do it (instead of checking email or doing other work during the “break”). To help them, plan a little “enforced fun.” This can be things like group juggling, kid-like games or songs like “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, or an impromptu dance session.

You’ll notice many of these activities have a physical element. This physicality also helps with restoring some energy for the intensive brain work.

Another energy-enhancing tip: feed people. A growling stomach is not conducive for maximum output of ideas. Be sure to feed them satisfying food—not just sweets. Offer nuts, cheese, veggies, or fruit. Oh, you can offer sweets too—but always make sure there’s some more sustaining fare, as well.

The brain naturally limits System 2 thinking.  

Your brain has two types of thinking:

  1. System 1 (Fast): is the “easy” type of thinking that we use most of the time. It’s intuitive and automatic. So, obviously, it’s also energy-efficient
  2. System 2 (Slow): is thinking that requires more deliberation, more focus, more conscious thought, and literally uses more energy. So, we subconsciously avoid it whenever we can. 

If you avoid (or limit) System 2 thinking when it’s needed in your innovation process, you will, at the least, miss out on really good ideas—and at the worst, make some bad judgment calls that you might have avoided if you had effectively used System 2.

One of the phases where people frequently try to avoid System 2 thinking is immediately after idea generation, when it’s time to select the best ideas. The brainstorming is usually lots of fun. It’s fast, and our brains are making sub-conscious and intuitive connections. Then comes the time we have to be focused and deliberate to narrow to a manageable set of ideas. Suddenly, it all becomes…a Lot. Less. Fun.

Know that your team will try hard to avoid System 2 thinking, and you need to be prepared to counter the objections, and ensure that the needed deliberate thinking will happen. For example, people will say, “It takes too long to review all the ideas. We don’t have time.” or, “Let’s just have everyone champion a few ideas instead of reviewing all of them. The ones we remember are probably the best ones anyway.”  (Which isn’t true, but that’s another topic.)

Another all-too-common scenario — the team has gotten together and spent several hours generating ideas. Then, everyone gets 5 sticky dots to vote for top ideas. Most people will do this in 5 minutes and immediately dash out the door. They weren’t forced to engage System 2 thinking, so they won’t. Their decisions will rely on System 1, with all its concurrent biases, shortcuts, and mistaken intuition. There will never be the deliberate, conscious, effortful thinking that’s needed at this stage. If this is the typical process in your innovation sessions, you need to make some significant changes.

The brain is a “Bayesian inference machine.”

Huh?  Bayesian logic is a very specific, formulaic method that provides a disciplined way of combining new evidence with prior models. So, the reference to our brains being a Bayesian inference machine is obviously a metaphor, although a very apt one.

Whenever people are faced with new information, they use it to only slightly refine — not completely rethink — their existing models/beliefs/hypotheses. Rarely do we assume new data means our existing beliefs might actually be wrong. Instead, we make only incremental and minimal adjustments to our existing beliefs; the least possible change in our thinking that will account for the new data.

Further, the more experience you have in a subject, the more of these existing assumptions you have about it. You are likely not even aware of all these embedded assumptions; many of them are so ingrained in your thinking that it wouldn’t occur to you to question them. They are presumed to be fact — if you even consciously recognize that you have these beliefs.

Obviously, to reach truly breakthrough insights and ideas, you must go beyond incremental thinking. To get there, we need to consider the possibility that our view of the world (or the market, or our product category, etc.) might need shaking up. Given that our human tendency is to retain existing mental models, you need to consciously be doing things to help you and your team break out of this natural limitation on new thinking.

Our brains are constantly making short cuts, mostly in the interest of conserving energy.  As a result, your brain will subconsciously limit your thinking in ways you’re not aware of, unless you consciously and actively manage it.  Remaining vigilant about these neuroscience-based barriers can help you dramatically improve your creative thinking and your innovation processes.

About the Author, Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?”  She is a creative thinking expert with over 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies.  As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Susan brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity.  To learn more, please go to:


Overcoming the Lack of Support by Susanne Tedrick

Overcoming the Lack of Support by Susanne Tedrick

No single person, no matter how intelligent or experienced, can understand everything there is to know about a given job. Questions will come up, and when they do, the individual – whether a software developer, project manager, sales engineer – or any other title, needs to have a handle on the specific support that is needed, and how to ask for it.
With more people working remotely than ever before, this topic is emerging as a persistent issue. This is particularly true in fields like tech, in which teams must understand how to quickly resolve network and other systemic breakdowns and problems. Here are some ideas how to overcome lack of on-the-job support and seek help:
  • Be sure to reach out to the right person. Many times, unhelpful or unsupportive people are acting out of lack of knowledge. Before you text, email, or phone, consider if you are contacting the correct individual. This person may have taken a different position in the company and is no longer current on the issues you need. If you require specific examples of what to do, reach out to someone good at providing practical advice – not someone who offers platitudes like, “You’re smart, you’ll figure it out.”
  • Understand the support you need and ask for it  Make it clear to colleagues and supervisors alike where you need help. Do you need support on a particular problem? Do you require assistance to better understand the project in its entirety? Perhaps you need to just grasp your specific role in it? Maybe you need greater flexibility to make a deadline. What is it, exactly, that you need? It’s not a good idea to assume that people will automatically know. Tell them.
  • Set realistic expectations of others. Many times, people are weathering enough challenges of their own to help out. They may not have the time or resources to be as supportive as you’d like them to be. Is it possible you’re asking for too much? This is where realistic expectations come in. Be sure you’re asking for assistance, nothing more. If your requests are excessive, you will need to start giving back before you can expect any support in return.
  • Lack of support often means lack of communication. It can prove difficult to obtain the help you need if there is a big gap in communication. An outgoing person may be happy to talk at length about your problem. But if you assimilate information better by watching a video that explains the issue, contact a colleague who will use a platform like this to help. You may not “get” what the other person is saying or the individual you’re asking might not understand your request because of a communication gap.
  • Network, network, network. You can never know too many people! If a trusted colleague quits to take another job with another company and you’ve relied on him exclusively, what then? The plain fact is that people move away, retire, etc. As noted earlier, no single person knows everything. A network of trusted friends, coworkers, mentors, and the like can help in areas where help and support may be lacking. A change of perspective may be what you need instead of relying on the same person.
  • Finally, be sure you are willing to accept criticism. We all like to give good advice but we are sometimes awful at accepting the advice of others as it forces us to admit our weaknesses. It’s normal for an individual to think they know more than they actually do. Remember, there is a reason you asked for assistance. Don’t take their suggestion personally. Consider if doing what the person advises will help you professionally. If it will, do it!

In conclusion, never assume a colleague, supervisor or manager understands what you are asking. Don’t rely on a single coworker for assistance and be sure to reach out to the person who can address your problem best. Good luck! 

About the Author, Susanne Tedrick

Susanne Tedrick is an infrastructure specialist for Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. In her work, Susanne helps her clients address needs and challenges surrounding cloud adoption, cost optimization and migration. Susanne is the author of the critically acclaimed “Women of Color in Tech” and the upcoming “Innovating For Diversity”. For more information, please visit: