What kills innovation and how to stop it
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Idea Killers

You're a killer, and you didn't even know it. Don't worry, you're not alone. I've killed thousands, and everyone you see around you has killed thousands too. Luckily, we're not talking about killing people.

We're talking about the number of ideas we've eradicated. Countless ideas are killed every minute around the globe. Ideas that could be changing lives, industries, and the world.

It's time to make a stand against these senseless deaths. To get crystal clear as to why we kill so many ideas (both consciously and subconsciously).

To find out how we can change this to ensure that brilliant ideas (that can make a difference to you and your livelihood) get the chance to live and bring you a profitable return and future.

Bounded by Biases

You're biased, I'm biased. Everyone on this planet has biases. Many of the biases we have in our minds have evolved over thousands of years to help us survive, yet many of these biases prevent us from ideating and innovating.

Our most significant obstacle to innovating is the negativity bias. Over thousands of years, our limbic brain, which controls our fight and flight responses, has developed to look out for threats. Unfortunately, these threats can be either real or imagined. When it comes to innovating and ideas, the limbic brain imagines these as real threats to its survival.

Your neocortex (the area responsible for creative problem solving and ideas) could create a game-changing idea with immense potential, yet your limbic brain has different ideas. Your limbic brain does a quick search into the long-term memory banks stored in the temporal lobes for any similar activity or relatable experience. Because your idea is new and different, all the mind can find in its memory banks are relatable experiences. Experiences of when you did something very different to everyone else.

Unless you have a data bank full of successful innovations from your past, your mind is likely to pull up failed examples of what you did differently to other people. Remember: the limbic brain is looking for a threat, so it's searching for past experiences that threatened you.

Unfortunately for you, the mind recalls everything. It digs up that time you did a presentation that was different from everyone else but failed because you didn't have enough time to prepare it. It remembers that another team member tried a new initiative only to get ridiculed when it didn't succeed. The more examples the mind finds, the more ammunition it has to kill the idea.

Memories Override Logic

The stronger the memory of these unsuccessful activities or events, the less logic will be able to overpower the limbic brain. The more emotional the experience or event that the memory is attached to, then the more long term and powerful the memory will be, whether it is good or bad. In short, the limbic brain gets the upper hand and suppresses the neocortex's thinking, and you go into a fight or flight response to the idea. 

This means you either fight with the idea or leave it and move on as quickly as possible. The same happens to other people. They come up with an idea, and we process it in the same way. A new idea means risk, which equals fight or flight.

New Idea, But Old Memory

You see a new idea, yet your brain sees an old memory, and new ideas mean new risk, so invariably, you go into a fight or flight response. This is why so many people fail to further take an idea because their memory and subconscious mind are risk-averse. In many ways, your conscious mind creates ideas, yet your subconscious minds kill ideas.

To the subconscious mind, different equals dangerous. What's new is different, what's different is risky, what's risky is what's avoided, and what's avoided is left unattended.

The sad news is, what's left alone becomes someone else's opportunity, which becomes someone else's idea, and if they know how to get beyond their biases, this idea becomes their innovation and their commercial success.

Group Thinking Sinks Innovative Thinking

What's even worse is that we become even more risk-averse when we get together as a group. Research has shown that organisations overwhelmingly (close to 90%) will adopt a prevention-focused motivation versus promotion-focused motivation.

Prevention-focused motivation is when we look at all the ways we can avoid mistakes happening or prevent us from losing money. On the other hand, promotion-focused motivation is all about looking at the gains that can be made.

For example, improved sales, additional income, bonuses, etc. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the bias to being risk-averse and being prevention-focused. However, start-ups have a much stronger promotion focus motivation that can encourage more ideas and more innovation.

Now, you might be starting to understand that if you're in a large organisation, even when an idea looks brilliant, unless you can create a 100% money-back guarantee that it will work, the idea is likely to be killed.

The Fable of an Idea Left on the Table

How many of us have heard of that great idea left on the table due to competing priorities? Or the idea that someone said they had tried years ago, but never actually had? What starts to happen is a collective memory of past projects and even more reasons why ideas should be killed.

In short, most of us are hard-wired to the status quo and to think the same way as we always have. We need to short circuit this to innovate.  

To overpower the fables of the past, we need to create new stories and create new emotions. For all of us, the brain is an artefact of the past; past experiences, events, and feelings. A mind is a recording machine that continually lays down tracks of past experiences, events, and choices that we've made or others have made.

Most of our thinking is redundant thinking based on past products, past services, past needs, past challenges, past failures, past successes, and past pressures. 

The more emotionally charged a past experience or event is, the stronger the memory becomes, be that a good or bad experience. In turn, these memories affect our thoughts and feelings, which then create attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. These, in turn, lead to the behaviours and choices that we make every day.

In essence, we feel the way we think, and we think the way we feel. We have a thought about innovation, and we create a biochemical reaction in the brain. The brain then releases chemical signals that are transmitted to the body. The innovative thoughts that produced the chemicals allow your body then to feel according to the thought. In this instance, the thinking creates the feeling.

Addicted to Not Innovating

We have also become addicted to certain emotions and behaviours. We have the challenge that we are addicted to neuro-chemicals, such as the cortisol that comes with an urgent stressful situation. The urgency and the high emotion loaded with it make it a long-term memory that will overpower other thoughts. 

You've neuro-chemically memorised the emotion that has become a part of your standard modus operandi. So, the next time a situation comes up when you could and should be innovating, your emotions prevent you from thinking greater than your feelings and innovating. Instead, you look for the emotion you have become addicted to (urgency, stress etc) and decide that you'll start innovating tomorrow.

We continually look at runaway technology business successes such as Facebook and Uber to compare them to our own organisations and reaffirm our addiction to being incapable of creating such a phenomenal success. We use entrepreneurial business geniuses such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson to reaffirm our addiction to having "a lack" of opportunity or "lack of" creativity. We reiterate our dependence on criticism by avoiding any attempt to do something new and giving as much criticism to those who come up with new ideas. 

We use our younger co-workers to reaffirm our addiction to judgement and criticise them for wanting to create change faster than what we think should be acceptable.

If you could take your business from yesterday and place it into tomorrow and it's precisely the same, then your business has lost its ability to innovate. It's stuck in the box and stuck in the program, making the same choices every day, becoming predictable in business and predictable in life. The business environment is controlling and defining the business reality.

Thinking Outside of The Box is Not Only About What You Think, But What You Feel

Thinking "outside of the box" is not just about changing your thinking; it's about changing your emotions. To commit to innovation, you need to do more than just changing your thinking. You need to make a decision with an energy that is higher than the emotional addiction of the past. Right now, you might be wondering, "how do I get my energy levels up behind making a decision to commit to innovating?"

To get your energy level up, one of the ways is through mental and emotional rehearsal. Just as elite performers and athletes run their upcoming event scene by scene in the mind, we need to apply the same rigour to our future innovation act. Here's a rundown on how to get your emotional energy levels up while mentally rehearsing your innovation activities:Mental & emotional rehearsal activity:

  1. Find a space where you can take a couple of minutes without being disturbed.
  2. Take some deep breaths - try moving the breath from the belly up to the chest and towards the head.
  3. Imagine what it would feel like to be a creative genius.
  4. How would you feel in your body, in your heart? How exciting would it be to solve those problems that no one else has solved before? Is it a feeling of surprise, excitement, curiosity? Enjoy these feelings, remember them, and how they feel.
  5. Imagine what it would feel like to have that "aha" or "eureka" moment when an insight comes to you that reveals something that no one else would have thought of before. Be open to receiving these feelings. Are they feelings of discovery, knowingness, satisfaction, surprise?
  6. Notice in your body the feelings that would come to you as you find yourself generating killer ideas that create a solution that could really be a game-changer. Would you be having fun, or feeling elated, pumped, proud, confident, humble¦? Be open to these feelings, remember them, and how good they feel.
  7. Tune into receiving the feelings when you would have to create a rapid prototype of your idea. To enable you to test a hypothesis at minimal risk yet with maximum opportunity to learn from it to give you certainty and confidence in taking it further. Turn up the feelings, whether they are feelings of discovery, curiosity, awe, confidence, fun, etc.
  8. Now, feel what it would be like to take a proven prototype/proof of concept and develop it and launch it for the market. Are you feeling clever as you weave around some of the logistical challenges, or "in the zone" as you execute the steps? Intensify them, breathe them in and throughout the body. Remember these feelings and enjoy them.
  9. Now, imagine your innovation project is complete and successful. What are the feelings that you are experiencing in the body? Contentment? Happiness? A sense of achievement? Pride? Whatever those feelings are, intensify them and breathe them in. Remember all these feelings and emotions you have been experiencing and enjoy them knowing that you can recall them whenever you want.
  10. If you've managed to find a couple of minutes to do this activity, congratulations! You are changing your neurochemistry and laying the neural foundations for you to start innovating and overcome one of the biggest obstacles to innovating. Committing to innovate when the subconscious mind says not to.


There are many ways to physically reduce the risk of innovating, which I've blogged about many times, including reducing the implications by testing a minimal proof of concept and reducing uncertainty by running numerous trials, prototypes, and proof of concepts quickly.
While running experiments and prototypes are crucial, if you can't get buy-in from your mind, you won't even take it to the prototyping phase.


Nils Vesk - Ideas with Legs

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About Nils Vesk

He's the founder of Ideas With Legs.

His  clients call him a Reinvention Renegade. Nils Vesk is an international authority on innovation and the inventor of the ‘Innovation Archetypes Process’.

Around the globe, leading companies such as Nestle, HP & Pfizer turn to Nils to share his proven innovation techniques for formulating commercial insights, ideas, extraordinary customer experiences and irresistible products.

Nils unpacks the million-dollar innovation principles used to create rapid growth for the future.

Nils is the author of a number of books including "Ideas With Legs - How to Create Brilliant Ideas and Bring Them to Life", and "Innovation Archetypes - Principles for World Class Innovation".

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