The neuroscience of innovation

A new Korn Ferry report reveals how organizations can unlock the six principles of innovative thinking.

Rengin Firat

Senior Researcher, Neuroscientist, Korn Ferry Institute

Imagine you are sitting at work, and one of your colleagues strikes yet again with an exciting new idea. You think to yourself, “How do they always come up with such great suggestions? Why can’t I do the same?”

We all know somebody who is naturally innovative. This is the person you look at and think, “Wow, they have got it.” This trait seems to be the luck of the draw, but as neuroscience research shows, innovative thinking can be learned and cultivated.

With patience and practice, experts say, anybody can develop the ability to be innovative. “Innovative thinking is not reserved for creative ‘geniuses’. We all have the neural infrastructure for innovation and creativity,” says Rengin Firat, senior researcher and neuroscientist at Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm.

Many look at innovation through a lens of “what” rather than “how,” as if innovation can only be a tangible outcome. However, innovation begins as an idea—the moment we decide to embrace new ways of thinking and discovering. In its latest report, The Neuroscience of Innovation, the Korn Ferry Institute dives deep into the six principles of innovative thinking: making associations; mental time travel; mental imagery; counterfactual thinking; imitative learning; and empathy. The report also offers several ways in which organizations can leverage these principles to boost creativity and innovation.  

Creative insight, the backbone of innovative thinking, can occur both spontaneously and deliberately, says Firat. Deliberate creativity involves methodical problem-solving, while spontaneous creativity strikes when you least expect it. Both spontaneous and deliberate innovation are underlined by several distinct mechanisms in the brain. By understanding the neuroscience of innovative thinking, she adds, people, teams, and organizations alike can activate these mechanisms to expand their ability to generate new ideas and be innovative. “Innovation can be ‘unleashed,’ so to speak, by using scientific strategies,” says Firat.

6 ways organizations can unlock innovative thinking to boost innovation

Innovation, when implemented well, can bring profit and growth to businesses in a multitude of ways, including improving brand recognition and value, reduced costs, and increased productivity. How, though, can organizations facilitate innovation by fostering innovative thinking among their employees? To unlock the principles of innovative thinking, leaders can follow these six specific, actionable strategies: 

1. Making associations: Give minds the time to wander.

Creative thinking relies on the ability to make associations between unrelated concepts. In order to make such associations, it is important to reach a mental quiet by reducing the extra cognitive load on the brain. Research found that, to foster innovative thinking, teams should be given open, unstructured time and resources at the initial planning and designing stages. This way, they can let their minds wander, make connections between unrelated concepts, and experiment with different thoughts.

2. Mental time travel: Invest in employee wellbeing.

A fundamental aspect of human cognition is our ability to reconstruct past events in our minds and project ourselves into the future by imaging alternative scenarios—a process known as mental time travel. This mental time travel to a reimagined past or imagined future relies on retrieving episodic memories (that is, memories of past personal experiences). Organizations can improve mental time travel by investing and implementing strategies that improve employee well-being, increase self-esteem, and build self-efficacy. This could mean pairing professional growth opportunities with designated “no meeting” days, mindfulness trainings, and wellness benefits.

3. Mental imagery: Integrate visualization practices to improve innovation.

Mental imagery refers to the ability to create visual representations by retrieving information from our memory—or, to put it simply, “seeing with the mind’s eye.” Mental imagery is a core component of creative thought processes. Research shows that mental imagery can also act as an amplifier of motivation to promote increased engagement in and enjoyment of activities. To help improve innovation, organizations can start integrating visualization processes like storyboarding, graphical illustrations, or mental-imagery exercises (including imagining previous or future tasks, activities, or products) as part of day-to-day work.

4. Counterfactual thinking: Count blessings—as well as losses.

Counterfactual thinking is a non-lateral way of imagining alternative—and sometimes contrary—ways things might have happened. It helps us experiment with new ideas by questioning existing events or outcomes. Upward counterfactual thinking helps us imagine what could have gone better, while downward counterfactual thinking helps us think about what could have gone worse. The perfect balance of these two modes could provide leaders and teams with a mental protocol that allows them to increase their return-on-failure without demoralizing themselves or their workforce.

5. Imitative learning: Provide opportunities in order to observe to jumpstart agile learning.

It may sound counterintuitive that imitation can beget creativity and originality, but imitation is one of the key mechanisms of human learning. Imitative learning unleashes our ability to learn from others and go beyond the singular perspective. Even from our earliest days of life, we observe others around us to learn how to behave in and respond to the complex world surrounding us. Organizations can provide their teams with opportunities for partnerships and networking that will allow for observation in an intentional and constructive way. This can be done in ways such as shadowing different teams, attending conferences, or conducting focus groups.

6. Empathy: Value, promote, and empower differences.

Empathy is our ability to move beyond our own point of view and understand or feel what other people are experiencing. Exposure to different perspectives and backgrounds reduces prejudice and increases empathy. And working in diverse teams not only fosters empathy but also boosts imagination and creativity. Teams can search for – and bring together—diverse ideas by exploring different technologies and collaborating with others. Moreover, leaders can foster supportive, inclusive work environments that value and promote differences so that all employees, across all levels, feel empowered to innovate.

Innovative thinking is not simply the luck of the draw, but an achievable goal for people and organizations alike. With the right individual mindsets, organizational environment and management strategies, innovation can be purposefully cultivated, resulting in more products, better processes, and newer,  cutting-edge strategies and concepts.


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