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How science reveals drivers of an innovation culture

September 20, 2017
Innovation

What lies behind the creative spark of novel and useful ideas?

In downtown Helsingborg, Sweden, sits a modest little building devoted to those whose ideas have crashed and burned. A temple to the flop, the hash, the screw-up, which plays on feelings of schadenfreude that lurk in all of us.

The Museum of Failure holds a collection of more than 70 products and service ideas that were, on their launch, considered innovative and exciting.

Interestingly, many of these innovations originated in large corporations. There’s Google Glass, the computer headset launched in 2014 and terminated in 2015 after being widely panned. And the Harley Davidson perfume that at least one person at the motorbike company must have thought was a good idea.

But the museum also has a serious purpose, stated in its publicity: “Learning is the only way to turn failure into success.”

The hard fact is that most innovations fail. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, coming up with new stuff has become the holy grail for modern businesses.

“A decade or so ago, organisations didn’t need to focus on innovation,” says Joel Pearson, an associate professor in the school of psychology at UNSW.

“They had their established business, their marketing and advertising, their customers. But due to waves of disruptive technology, innovation is now a survival tactic, not something you choose to do as an add-on.”

As innovation is a relatively new concept for many organisations, Pearson believes they often don’t know where to start in creating an innovation culture.

“They don’t know how to experiment over and over again and there is often a fear of failure. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what is driving innovation,” he says.

Pearson is trying to change that by using neuroscience to understand more about the creative spark.

Objective measurement

The Science of Innovation Lab (SIL), set up at UNSW, was Pearson’s idea and has already resulted in several projects, such as the Cognitive Neuroscience Innovation Index, which works rather like a “blood test” for organisations to measure and understand cognitive mechanisms and devise appropriate interventions.

‘The challenge is to study creativity and ask: how do you measure these illusive concepts and operationalise them?’ 

– JOEL PEARSON


“Traditional research based on employees filling out surveys is fraught with problems and influenced by biases and conditioning. Instead we are moving into the field of objective measurement or cognitive neuroscience,” says Pearson.

“We want to go way past those [old] methods to have objective cognitive tests administered online, or with VR, and neural tests administered on-site that are non-invasive and use skin conductance to build a multidimensional cognitive index.”

Researchers at SIL have been focusing on areas of human behaviour that are antithetical to science, or at least hard to measure.

“We are looking at imagination, intuition, hallucinations – the challenge is to study creativity and ask: how do you measure these illusive concepts and operationalise them? We have done that initially with mental imagery; we have developed the first objective reliable test of the imagination,” says Pearson.

This bio-technical approach to innovation builds on brain scanning research to shed light on what makes people creative or intelligent, but academics at SIL have taken these ideas further by extracting hard data and applying it to try to understand what drives innovation.

A kind of split personality

The idea that it’s just a case of luck or happenstance that an organisation finds itself with people displaying creative behaviours is now firmly out of fashion.

Christy Forest, managing director Asia-Pacific at CEB (now part of Gartner), is one of many in the HR and technology fields who believe that innovation can be cultivated.

A CEB report isolated two markers in particular that most strongly drive innovation potential. One is a person they call “a customer empathiser” (understanding customer needs and often linking that to technology solutions); another is someone who is an “idea integrator” (synthesising insight from disparate sources).

“Innovation isn’t just about inventing the next great X. Innovation happens because of the environment, the skills, the talent and the process,” says Forest.

“It used to be that innovation was the task of a small development team in the corner of an office, but now innovation happens in an environment that taps the entire workforce.”

Forest acknowledges that large organisations find it tricky to be innovative because big, cumbersome processes and policies that have accumulated over the years tend to get in the way.

A big company needs to have a kind of split personality, requiring the machinery necessary for day-to-day operation, while simultaneously creating a culture to disrupt itself, explains Forest.

Michelle Gibbings, managing director of Change Meridian, believes a barrier to innovation is often in the mind.

“Some people think, ‘It’s beyond me, it’s the domain of highly creative people only’, but innovation can be more simple,” Gibbings says.

‘If we are tracking over time what the things are that predict success and resilience, then we can build programs around that’ 

– joel pearson


“Such as, what can I do to make my job more effective? How do we accelerate progress? What are my competitors doing that we can do? It’s not just about creating things, but tweaking around the edges and that involves shifting a mindset about how we view innovation.”

A rock dropped into a pool

Gibbings notes that creating space where people can try things out is a key to fostering innovation. And it doesn’t have to be dedicated thinking spaces or ideas generated on weekends away.

“It includes staring out the window and wondering ‘what if’, or going outside and shifting your environment. Doing things differently, such as not driving to work but catching public transport,” Gibbings says.

“Or talking to people who are in different industries and creating connections outside your normal circle of contacts. Those people will approach things differently and make you think of how you apply that in your own environment.”

Collaboration as a driver of innovation is very much behind the latest initiative between UNSW and the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

The two organisations are developing a PhD program, along with industry partners, to create a new breed of innovators and accelerate business and research working together.

The three-way partnership gives students access to researchers, professionals and infrastructure, with an integrated six-month industry placement aimed at connecting research and business to deliver solutions to address real-world problems.

Pearson is keen that the results coming out of SIL aren’t just to benefit large organisations but can be applied to smaller initiatives.

“A lot of people are coming through universities and going on to launch start-up businesses. If we are tracking over time what the things are that predict success and resilience, then we can build programs around that.”

Like a rock dropped into a pool, the influence of products and programs to cultivate innovation can permeate into our homes as well as work, according to Pearson.

“Real brain science isn’t just a scientific endeavour, it’s also a social endeavour and there is an ethical responsibility to make innovation developments as widely available as possible,” he says.

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