The psychology of innovation is like any other area of life where our brains and emotions simply get in the way of our progress. Even when we are aware of the pitfalls, they are unavoidable. Our brains are wired to fall into these traps.
I recently wrote a blog post about harmful innovation myths, and now I want to dive into the psychology around innovation. Some of these are core tenants of my lessons learned while managing corporate innovation.
The six areas below are common obstacles and idea blockers that I have seen time and again while working with innovative teams.
1. Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon for many of us, regardless of our level of experience. Our self-doubt can be broad or situational. It can affect those who struggle with shyness, anxiety, or anyone learning something new. Even when there is no evidence to support our fears, we still worry about not measuring up to other experts (real or perceived).
When it comes to innovation, some people believe they are not the creative type, and as a result, can block their own innovative thinking. However, it is important to know that everyone can bring a unique perspective to a conversation. Having a diverse team with people at different levels can help break undesirable groupthink. Some teams look to include a “wild card” member for this purpose.
Owning your inner imposter can be critical to finding solutions. Don’t be afraid to ask simple questions and share your perspective. Other experts may overlook the obvious alternatives.
2. Idea Champion Contention
Idea ownership can hinder innovation teams in several ways. Some individuals are idea machines but lack the ability to act on them. This can lead to contention over letting go of an idea and allowing someone else to champion it. This can stifle growth and progress.
Businesses must foster a culture where ideas are not owned by individuals. Start-ups and venture capitalists often say that an idea is worthless if it cannot be executed. That’s why a committed idea champion is essential, even if the idea originated with someone else.
Politeness and humility can also impede progress. To avoid challenging others or hurting feelings, potential champions may avoid approaching someone who has a great idea. Creating a culture of innovation that values open communication and idea-sharing can bridge these gaps and allow innovative solutions to flourish.
3. Conflicting or Misplaced Priorities
Hope is not a strategy. Placing priority on innovation is required if it is to happen. Conflicting priorities can come from managers or our own tendency to procrastinate.
The Eisenhower Quadrants of Productivity give us a way to bucket requests. Q2 is “Productive Time” where innovation, strategy, and planning live – it’s not urgent, but very important. Q2 thinking can easily be pushed to the backburner because of Q1 “Fire Fighting” and Q3 “Distraction” requests.
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Even when a C-level head of the department encourages innovation participation, it still may not be enough to combat the priorities set by managers. An inflexible manager who favors short-term urgency over long-term importance may prevent participation or force an individual to work late to make up for missed hours.
Individually, misplaced priorities can come from a tendency to place a lot of time in Q4 “Down Time” such as watching TV or movies for hours every night. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have downtime…the question is how intentional you are with those choices.
Dr. Jud Brewer’s book, Unwinding Anxiety, suggests that we can unintentionally get addicted to distraction as a temporary reward and get stuck in habit loops. Despite the habits having negative impact, we find comfort in them. Though breaking out of those loops can be more rewarding in the end.
4. Us vs Them & The Helpless Victim
Our brains are wired for storytelling. It has been valued for millennia. The Atlantic wrote a piece on “The Desirability of Storytellers”, that discusses both a contemporary hunter-gatherer culture as well as storytelling 6,000 years ago. Even huge tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have profit centers based on entertainment.
We tell ourselves stories. Unfortunately, our internal stories can be harmful to innovation efforts, blocking great ideas. When we have missing information, our minds fill in the gaps based on stories we’ve heard before. We sometimes forget to verify their accuracy. This can lead to “us versus them” or “helpless victim” stories, which can limit how far we go.
Great stories have a conflict between a hero and a villain. In our heads we assume we’re the hero and anyone who disagrees with us is the villain. This could be a manager or co-worker who has a view that you disagree with. This inevitably pits “us” against “them” and starts to divide the team.
The helpless victim story leads to a “woe is me” mentality. We may believe that we cannot achieve something because of other circumstances beyond our control. This causes you to talk yourself out of ideas before they are shared with others. An idea can’t fly if it isn’t brought up for consideration.
5. Path of Least Resistance
By nature, we tend to take the easy, predictable, and most comfortable path. Psychology Today has an article titled “We’re Wired to Take the Path of Least Resistance”, which reports on research from University College London that suggests humans will unconsciously change behavior as imperceptible steps of resistance are added.
It’s important to consider trade-offs between finding a simple solution and putting in more effort to achieve your desired goal. With a proper North Star goal, you can decide what works best to move the team toward your desired state.
Taking the easy path can be a blocker if it’s motivated by a desire to avoid challenges or criticism. Make sure your actions align with your goals.
6. General Biases
Cognitive biases are fascinating but are often painted in a negative light. Instincts, on the other hand, are normally considered favorably. Many biases can be classified as instincts though. Psychologists have identified logical explanations for why our minds have formed these predictable behaviors: to help us survive, find food, or stay away from danger. In today’s modern world, most of those threats are not as poignant as they once were. Yet they linger.
Even when we understand these biases and their negative consequences, we tend to fall for them repeatedly – the very definition of an addiction! While it’s hard to overcome these biases, awareness of them is a good start.
I’ll continue my own struggle against them in hopes of better controlling my outcomes.
The psychology of innovation is a slippery slope and often gets in the way of our progress. We’re biologically wired to fall into these traps. My intention in writing this article is to share insights of what I’ve seen, read, and experienced. I like to shine a light on areas that my instincts naturally want me to avoid. I think that’s the best approach.
From a business perspective, if we want to avoid the common pitfalls of organizational change, then we need to understand a little bit about how our brains and emotions work. If we want innovative ideas to shine, we need to take realistic steps to manage our own human fallibility.
If you’re aiming to break through the idea blockers and make real innovative change in your business, reach out to your Perficient account manager or use our contact form to begin a conversation.