How neurochemicals can help you lead and be innovative

Welcome back to Leadership as a Practice. I wanted to first start by sharing that I have missed writing and hearing from you about the content of this blog. I intend to be writing far more consistently and am filled with optimism as we come out from under the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, I wanted to share something I learned recently through The Innovative Healthcare Leader program at Stanford University. I found it interesting that the program was a week-long but only discussed design thinking on one day. The rest of the program was devoted to becoming an innovative leader and shifting the mindset of an organization so teams can think creatively as well.

One of my major takeaways came from Professor Baba Shiv, who spoke about a framework he developed called “The X Framework.” A version of the framework is posted online and shown here:

The idea behind the framework is that people have three neurochemicals that change their mood, behavior, and willingness to tolerate risk. Coritsol, the stress neurochemical, gives us a very low risk tolerance and low creativity. The response triggers most people to recoil, shut down, or seek familiarity/status quo. Serotonin is the neurochemical that reflects comfort. Serotonin is the chemical that gets released when you kiss a significant other, for example. Finally dopamine is the neurochemical that activates excitement or creativity.

Much of these neurochemical concepts and how they relate to leadership are covered by authors like Simon Sinek. Shiv’s contribution has to do with the conditions needed for innovation and creativity. In organizations that are high stress, creativity tends to be very low because levels of cortisol are high. When cortisol levels are high, dopamine is blocked from being released. To get to a situation where dopamine can be released, people must have a sufficient amount of serotonin release first.

That is why the concept of psychological safety is so important to both innovation and leadership, more broadly. If you believe, as I do, that the people closest to the work know the work the best and are therefore in the best place to improve it, they will not be able to do so in an environment that consistently increases their cortisol levels.

During his seminar, Shiv argued that one of the primary human motivations is “Social consequence,” which is the need to save face and maintain social standing. For example if a superior calls you out or humiliates you in a meeting with your peers, that would be a negative social consequence and produce a significant cortisol release leading to de-motivation.

According to a recent survey by McKinsey and Company, Psychological safety is, “When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequence.” Psychologically safe workplaces exist to keep the team’s serotonin levels high, providing abundance (think free food options at google), recognition, and gratitude. According to Shiv and the McKinsey survey, these organizations also tend to be more innovative and open to taking risks, including adapting to change.

If you are a leader looking to create change and unlock the creativity of your team, look for ways in to keep their levels of stress low and of psychological safety high. Innovation depends on a culture that can support positivity and safe-to-fail experiments.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Do you want to lead an innovative organization? Look for ways to keep your teams stress low and psychological safety high.

Frugal Innovation

The idea of innovation or an innovative company is in vogue. Whether it is the Silicon Valley startup, or the “innovative” CEO, that descriptor has much social currency in today’s world. In business school, one of my favorite classes was the class I took on with Professor Anil Gupta.

Professor Gupta introduced the class to several different constructs for innovation, but the one that spoke to me the most was a concept called Frugal InnovationFrugal Innovation is the idea that the creation of something new is low cost, low environmental impact, and low resource utilization. Professor Gupta provided examples including Southwest Airlines, GE’s portable ECG machine, and the Aravind Eye Care System.

ideas whiteboard person working

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

My previous professional experiences probably has something to do with the appeal of Frugal Innovation. As a lobbyist at the federal, state, and local levels of government, I observed several instances of waste. Historically, some government projects have begun with funding and then searched for solutions for the project/problem. Some people call this, “throwing money at the problem,” and I have observed how that strategy rarely ever works.

Additionally, Frugal Innovation solutions are often elegant in their simplicity. The concept includes design thinking as well as LEAN principles to create a solution for a specific market. Innovation happens in the simple delivery of the solution in a way that is both financially and environmentally cost effective.

I graduated from college during the depth of the recession. During both my academic career and in many of my jobs, there often were scarce resources to go around to deliver on the work. In fact, in all of them, the biggest resource I had to do the job was the expense for my time. While producing in a resource-constrained environment is not easy, it has challenged me to be creative in meeting the needs of the customer with the smallest resource investment possible.

I have found that the concepts at the root of Frugal Innovation likedesign thinking, analysis, LEAN, and general creativity, help me to refine my ideas and simplify the solution to be viable and frugal. I have found that I can apply these principles to solutions involving both people and systems. Taking the time to think through the problem and craft a frugal solution is usually “good enough”, if not the ideal solution.

I have also found, ironically, that after I have had some success as a lean department or through Frugal Innovation, other leaders are more likely to want to invest more in the product or service. Demonstrating that you can do things in a frugal way, even just to test and show proof of concept, is a powerful tool.

Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, innovation can be most transformative through its simplicity. Additionally, being low impact can also help to broaden innovation to new markets and spread solutions to people across socioeconomic lines. Leaders should keep the principles of Frugal Innovation in their tool-belt especially in entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial projects.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Using Frugal Innovation principles can help leaders develop simple solutions that have a small environmental footprint and make a big impact.