Andy Kanefield: How you can allow your employees to be better innovators Featured

10:43am EDT October 30, 2013
Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc. Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity. — Michael Porter

Innovation is on the lips of almost every business leader in the U.S. and probably the world. Each of us loves those moments when, like Archimedes, we can cry out that we’ve solved a vexing problem.

In addition, government leaders are also focused on innovation as the key to economic success. The White House document, A Strategy for American Innovation, includes the following assertions:

■  America’s future economic growth and international competitiveness depend on our capacity to innovate.

■  The American people will do best when their inventive, entrepreneurial spirit is unleashed. Government policy must nurture that spirit and ensure it is not deterred.

Take steps to enhance inventiveness

Let’s assume for a moment that these statements about nurturing entrepreneurial spirit and harnessing our inherent ingenuity to ensure our nation’s economic success are true. If the policy document referenced above effectively does that, are there ways business leaders can take greater advantage of this infrastructure? Are there ways to enhance that inherent ingenuity?

According to researchers in neuroscience, that answer is yes.

Let’s look at one example of what doesn’t work to spawn innovation. Most of us have heard, in one form or another, the idea of the “burning platform.” It is often used to simply communicate the reasons why any change needs to be made. The challenge is that true burning platforms are emergencies, which aren’t fertile ground for innovation.

The key principle here is that fear is not an effective long-term motivator. If your message is, “We need to be innovative or our competition is going to put us out of business,” you might want to rethink your message. Fear may work in putting out a literal fire, but it doesn’t work when new ideas are needed.

Give a little space

So, what does neuroscience tell us can be done to help fuel innovation? One example — give people some space. Think of this as the opposite of cramming the night before your mid-term exams. Research led by David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that complex problem-solving is enhanced by stepping away from a problem by using a “distractor task.”

The distractor task should be sufficiently difficult to ensure that you’re not focused on the complex problem you’re trying to solve. For example, a distractor task could be something as common as a Sudoku or crossword puzzle. 

It’s important within a business context to ensure that the task is different from the problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t distract yourself with the branding challenge of one division with the branding challenge of another. 

Let go of the problem for a moment

According to one executive coach, no one solves complex problems at will. The answers may suddenly arrive either in the middle of the night or while you do something pleasant and repetitive.

The point is that you have to let go of the problem for the solution to come to you. This quality often surprises people, but keep in mind that our unconscious processing resources are much larger than our conscious ones.

So, fear can be effective for short-term emergencies, but for long-term innovation needed to compete in the marketplace, creating an environment that promotes innovation requires giving your employees time to process and the space to do it. ●


Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. Reach him at (314) 863-4400 or