Innovation is the lifeblood of an organization. In order to thrive and be relevant, new ideas must emerge and be put into action. Our research recently found that nearly all organizations say that innovation is important, but in the same survey, we found that a mere 14% of organizations say that they are effective at innovation.

This means that more than 80% of organizations want innovation but struggle significantly to make it happen. It’s a significant gap, and we’re working feverishly to understand how to close it.

With almost 50 years of studying leaders, we know that solving an organization’s problems begins with improved leadership. The massive “knowing-doing” gap we see in innovation is no different. If organizations want to get better at innovation, the individual leaders in the organization have to improve their ability to lead innovation. In the new Ideas To Action guidebook How To Treat New Ideas, we’ve taken a focused look at the leadership skills that are necessary to make innovation happen in an organization.

When we set out to write How To Treat New Ideas, we decided to begin at the beginning of innovation: ideas. Innovation starts with the creative idea, the new thought, the “what if?” Simply put, ideas are the wellspring of innovation. Yet a shortage of ideas isn’t why organizations struggle to be effective. In fact, most organizations have more ideas than they know what to do with.

Instead, the real issue is that leaders intentionally or unintentionally kill ideas, choking off innovation at the starting point. That’s the heart and seminal point of the struggle: what do you do with ideas? More specifically, what does a leader need to do when presented with a new idea?

Leaders need to understand that their first reaction to a new idea is typically “fight or flight.” When an idea that is new, foreign, or maybe even odd emerges, we’re programmed to fight it or resist it, perhaps maybe even ignore it in hopes that it will go away.

This instinct comes from a finely tuned and powerful part of our brains — the limbic system. The limbic system is one of the larger and most ancient part of our brains. It’s the part of our brains that helped insure that we survived as a species.

Where would we be without our limbic brains and the deeply embedded “fight or flight” response? Likely, our ancestors would have been extinguished as they chose to try to hug some prehistoric beast rather than fight it off with a club or run for their lives. The drive to fear or run away from a particularly novel idea is a natural reaction, and one that’s so powerful it overwhelms us. So what is a leader to do?


How to Stop Running from Innovation

Being aware of your natural reaction to a new idea is the first step. Instead of seeing the “fight or flight” sensation as a weakness, embrace it for what it’s telling you about a new idea. That new idea that makes your head spin and your palms sweat might just be the beginning of something really awesome! Get a little uncomfortable, be nervous, and sweat a little. You’re onto something.

Next, slow yourself down and resist the natural first reaction to resist or run. Slowing down and containing this natural urge is where real leadership of ideas begins. The next step is to engage the executive judgement function of your brain. Executive judgement sits in the prefrontal cortex, and is responsible for helping you make good leadership decisions that stop you from clubbing that new idea to death, or dash from your office hoping to outrun it.

The executive judgement function is a much smaller, much newer part of the human brain and is easily overrun by your limbic response. Therefore, slowing down gives your executive judgement ability the space it needs to step in and take control.

In How To Treat New Ideas, we provide many tools for slowing down, engaging your executive judgement, and holding the limbic response at bay. Fundamentally, you’ll learn how to give a new idea fair examination, perhaps allowing the thought to take root and potentially grow into something truly awesome.

Through employing some practical but powerful tools, you can become the innovation you need to be. You can lead the way in closing the gap between wanting and doing innovation. You can lead your organization towards being one that not only recognizes the importance of innovation, but also one of the few that effectively practice it.

All you have to do is slow down, recognize your natural first response, and engage the better angels of your executive capability. Since innovation starts with the idea, you must treat ideas with the respect they deserve — they are the lifeblood of your organization’s future, relevancy, and success. Go ahead, be a hero. Take the first step.

Learn more about How to Treat New Ideas.

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