I recently read an article in the New York Times about neuroscience and innovation titled, “Eureka? Yes, Eureka!” The article starts off by disputing a quote from Mark Zuckerberg about innovation. In his quote, Zuckerberg states that innovation does not occur in a single epiphany but as a result of lots of hard work. Gary Matter, the author of the article, argues that his and his colleagues’ brain imaging study found that a significant surge of intense brain activity is associated with generating innovation. They interpret this surge as an indicator that the epiphany that Zuckerberg rejected actually occurs and, from this, they conclude that Zuckerberg is wrong.
Before I plunge into this discussion, it is worth discussing if this debate matters. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Economy Need Amazons but Mostly has GEs” makes a strong argument that the stagnation of the US economy is due in part to a decrease in innovation. As the author, Greg Ip puts it: “…the country as a whole badly needs some rule-defying risk-taking” in order to generate economic health. According to Ip, there is a direct connection between innovation and financial success.
Returning to the disconnect between Zuckerberg and Matter, in my opinion, they are both correct because they are looking at different aspects of the innovation process.
We recently worked with the engineering team of a large technology company. The question that they wanted us to answer was: “Why do a few of our engineers regularly come up with big, $50M ideas while most of them rarely come up with even small, $100k ideas?” The company’s leadership team asked us to use our Discovery process to reverse-engineer their most innovative engineers. What we found was that they could definitely be reverse-engineered and the specific processes they followed generated innovation and could indeed be consistently and systematically recreated in the less innovative people.
Here is what we found:
- – The star performers had a clear purpose about the client impact they wanted to create. It is always about a social good related to their business (neither Zuckerberg nor the authors understand the importance of the compelling purpose).
- – The star performers did lots of background work including significant investigation of trends in the market, particularly innovations happening on the bizarre edges of a field of interest. This type of research can take months of background work but it is the foundation for innovation. This is what Zuckerberg was describing: it takes a lot of work to create the environment for innovation.
- – The star performers at the company then experienced what we came to call a “synergistic jump.” The “jump” is what the Matter saw on the MRI — the intense brain activity of the jump.
- – What we mean by this is that lots of disparate pieces of information came together naturally to produce an innovation. It is synthesis at its best.
- – The jump always occurred during an activity in which the intellect is not very active such as in the shower or during exercise.
- – Once the jump occurred, the innovation seemed obvious to the star performers and, importantly, they knew the specific steps needed to make their idea a reality.
The important question is: Can organizations consciously take advantage of the opportunities created by this research? With the exception of the synergistic jump, the process of innovation is common to most top performers, and therefore it can be replicated. All top performers are purpose-driven and do the underlying work to develop mastery of a field. As we have demonstrated in all of the Cerebyte programs, it is easy to guide people to develop a compelling purpose and to do the underlying background work.
What is less predictable is the likelihood of the synergistic jump. Once purpose is defined and with the work toward mastery is far along, it is possible to guide people into the types of activities that produce the synergistic jump. As a result, organizations can consciously and systematically create all of the underlying conditions for the jump making it more likely to happen, including creating situations where the intellect is toned-down. While this still doesn’t guarantee that innovation will happen, applying the Cerebyte process to innovation can systematically increase innovation.
Would your organization benefit from more innovation?