The Brain and Why Innovation Gets Rejected

The Brain and Why Innovation Gets RejectedTell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve been working on a project or assignment and you have a breakthrough idea. Maybe it’s about what you’re working toward or maybe about something else entirely. Excited, you go and tell your boss or your team during your next meeting, expecting praise for your innovative thinking. What you get is careful, measured responses at best and outright rejection at worst.

Why is this? Are others at your organization simply not forward thinking? Are they egotistical and only focused on their own ideas? Is there no culture for rewarding innovation? These all could be the case, but it goes deeper than that.

Researchers from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina completed a landmark study around our perceptions about creative ideas when faced with uncertainty. This article by Oral Roberts professor David Burkus details the research, but the findings are eye-opening…because it highlights that as humans, we have a natural tendency to reject things outside the status quo.

We love the concept of creativity and extol the virtues of being creative, but the way we’re wired precludes us from fully embracing new ideas. How creative and innovative can our organizations be if we don’t understand the bias that even the most open managers and leaders come with?

The bad news is that this confirms that there is NOT an easy path to innovation or a magic switch you can turn on in your brain to boost your creativity. Not only that, once you DO have a breakthrough idea, this research (and no doubt your own anecdotal evidence) points to the fact that you’re already facing an uphill battle to implanting your creative ideas.

Burkus makes a pivotal point that has huge implications for any person or organization: “It may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling.”

Assuming something truly is creative (novel and unique) and innovative (is applicable and fulfills a need), it’s not the idea. It’s the way its defined. It’s the way you communicate it. And, it’s the audience.

When you’re presenting innovation, you’ve naturally got your back against the neurological wall so to speak, but there’s two things you can understand, know and control:

1. Yourself – Knowing how you think and the way you behave is critical. Any person–whether you are typically characterized as a “creative” type or a “right-brained thinker” or if you’ve got more structured, logical and analytical tendencies—has the capacity for innovation. But knowing where your ideas derive from is key in understanding how they’re going to come across. You may naturally connect the dots (in a conceptual manner) but not everyone will. You may think having a fully fleshed out, detailed plan for an innovative idea is necessary, but not everyone will. Think too about the way you behave—if you’re gregarious and driving, you’re breathlessly describing your idea and unabashedly speaking out. More quiet types won’t connect with this kind of presentation.

2. Your Audience – You can’t control who hears your idea, but you can look deeper into who they are and what drives that person. Are they relational and will they need to see how a creative concept affects employees, customers or the world as a whole? Do they have several key modes of thinking that mesh to drive a tendency to explore many options before making a decision. Start by asking questions that delve into what their thinking styles are as that can tailor how you approach pitching your own idea. Mirroring the behavior of others can be an on-the-fly adjustment that pays big dividends.

Laying the groundwork for successful innovation starts with understanding how our brains work—the new and novel is tough to swallow at times. So, it becomes an imperative to pinpoint a deeper focus, on a unique and personal level, about how ideas are derived and communicated.

This means that there needs to be a new foundation for the way individuals and organizations approach creativity and the translation of creativity into true innovation. It isn’t enough to come up with ideas…it now becomes necessary for innovators to understand the psyche of an idea.

Innovation is a complex business and what we’re continually uncovering with new brain and behavioral research may make it seem even more so. However, increased understanding also opens the door to greater efficiency and effectiveness in bringing new ideas to the marketplace in the future.

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Mark E MillerMark E. Miller is the Director of Marketing for Emergenetics International – an organizational development consulting company dedicated to expanding the capabilities of the one thing most valuable to every one of our clients – their people. Follow us on Twitter.

Mark E Miller




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No Comments

  1. Sandy Cormack on March 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Nice article, Mark. One more thing to consider is that innovation isn’t just ideas – it’s ideas enhanced into solutions. Raw creativity can definely induce uncertainty, because some people get wrapped up in the ‘how.’ But if ideas are developed into solutions a lot of that uncertainty can be mitigated.

  2. Eric Weisburg on March 18, 2013 at 12:10 am

    For the last 20 years, I’ve been in roles demanding the generation and evangelizing of disruptive ideas. I have experienced the reluctance to accept new ideas and agree with the author’s suggestions. I would also like to add a couple:
    1. Probe repeatedly to determine the source of the push-back. Ask why, and then ask it again and again. The resistance may stem from real flaws in your idea or to a misunderstanding.
    2. Give time for new ideas to sink in. After initial resistance, the second time the concept is presented the response is just as likely to be curiosity and interest. And after presenting the idea a third time, the staunchest resistors may begin to embrace the idea as their own.
    3. Pitch you idea at the right level. Senior executives who are tasked with improving performance will be much more open-minded than middle managers who are more likely to defend the status quo.

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