Start Here – The FIRST Step in any Business Innovation

I studied neuroscience to discover the first step you must take in any business innovation project.
Stick around to learn this vital principle plus SEVEN actions you can take right now to kickstart your innovation.


Why Innovation is like going on a First Date

Have you ever been on a first date and had the thought, I know how this is going to end?

You see a beautiful girl sitting across the table from you and you see her cute smile and you instantly think, ‘Wow, isn’t she beautiful? She’s just like [insert name of Ex-girlfriend] – cute at first, but then she wanted to spend all that time with me, then she wanted to move in together and then she wanted to get married and have babies. She wanted everything. Then it all blew up in a big argument and I left.

Well, I’m not going to let that happen. I know how this will end and I will save myself a lot of time, effort, and angst. I’m going to leave right now.

The first step you must take in any business innovation project is like going on a date.
It’s risky because you don’t know what will happen. And you need to be careful that you don’t have a premature evacuation and check out too soon.

How Neuroscience Sees Innovation

Gregory Berns - Iconoclast - The Neuroscience of Innovation Gregory Berns is a neuroscientist. And he wrote a great book about the neuroscience of innovation, Iconoclast – A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.

An iconoclast is literally a destroyer of icons. Traditionally this meant religious icons. But Berns defines an Iconoclast in a different way. He sees them as elite innovators – as someone who takes on something that hasn’t been done before.

Which raises a great question: how do you become an elite innovator?

Given he’s a neuroscientist, you can probably guess what Berns’ answer is: to become an elite innovator you need to think like one.

But how do you do that? How do you come up with a great idea and not the same old dribble that you always come up with?

The First Step in any Business Innovation is…

Your usual ideas

The first step in any business innovation is to see the world differently.

But how do you do that?

In our previous post on Business Innovation, we talked about your lazy brain. (It’s okay, my brain is lazy too.)

One way that your brain is lazy is that you take shortcuts to save on thinking time. For instance, your brain predicts what is going to happen based on what has happened before. It’s like watching a replay of yesterday’s football game. The same team keeps winning in the same way.

If this is all you do then you won’t come up with any interesting solutions to your innovation problems. You’ll simply spit out the same-old, repeat, cliche, been-done, un-original guff you usually do.

How do you change this? How can you see things differently?

The Two Neuroscience Principles of Innovation

Based on the science of the brain, there are two things you can do.

The goal is to see things as if you’ve never seen them before. But how do you do that?

The key is to know that your brain puts things in boxes or categories.

Five Electric Cars

For instance, the first time I saw an electric car, I thought, ‘That car’s a bit strange, it doesn’t have a grill on the front to let air into the radiator. How are they going to cool the engine?’ But when I discovered electric cars don’t need a radiator to cool the engine, I had a new box to put cars into. Now I can spot electric cars really easily just by looking at the grill. (It’s not perfect, but it is helpful.)

By thinking in terms of brain boxes or categories you can do two things to come up with new ideas.

The first thing you can do is have new experiences. This forces your brain and your perception to come up with new categories.

The second is to consider that your current categories are only one way of looking at things.
For instance, on your first date, it helps to remind yourself that this is not [insert name of Ex-girlfriend] and this is a completely different person.

(Surprise! Surprise! That over-used expression to ‘think outside the box’ is accurate. I bet you didn’t see that coming!)

Brain Boxes and Categories
Source: Screenshot of video by Cottonbro Studio on Pexels –

Seven Ways to Kickstart Your Innovation

Here are seven ways you can use this to see the world differently and come up with fresh ideas.

1 Present your idea in a new way – Instead of writing about your idea, draw it, make a mind map or graph it. This will force you to think about it differently. Use Design Thinking – It’s an essential tool for all innovators.

2 Change Environments – Take a holiday, use a different meeting room or walk a different way to work.

3 Add More Detail – One of the great killers of ideas is that we say ‘That’s not new, it’s just like that’. This is because our categories are broad strokes and generalisations. But when you add more detail you can see the variations and differences more easily. Make it a habit to look more closely before you dismiss a potentially good idea.

4 Meet New People – Hang out with new and different people who see the world differently from you. (And that’s everybody – we all see the world differently) And make sure you listen to their viewpoint otherwise you might as well have stayed home. For business innovation, go and meet your customers and find out how they do things.

5 Use Analogies – ‘This post is like a cup of coffee, it’s giving me energy and ideas’ When you use analogies you create new categories and new connections between things.

6 Do things differently – Change your method to change your perception of the task. For instance, use chopsticks instead of a knife and fork. Have a stand-up meeting instead of a sit-in.

7 Collect new experiences – Deliberately do things differently, go to different places, change your schedule, read a book, go to the opera, and disrupt your routine. Become someone who collects new experiences as fuel for your next innovation.

Analogy - like coffee
Source: Screenshot of video by Engin Akyurt on Pixabay

Your Challenge – Be an Innovator Today

My challenge for you today is to practise being an innovator by doing something that you haven’t done before.

This could be as simple as trying an espresso instead of your usual latte. Or it might be time to have lunch with someone new or walk to work a different way.

Pick something easy and remember to celebrate your success.

Bonus Points: What’s your best way of coming up with new ideas? Add a comment below and let me know.

Next Steps for Your Business Innovation

This is the second in a four-part series on business innovation. Here are three other related posts for you to read next.

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