Innovation is literally hardwired into humans.
Human DNA has evolved over time and helps produce generations stronger than the previous ones, slowly adapting to the environment around it. Our immune systems develop anti-bodies to protect us from viruses and diseases. Yet, our brain is ten thousand years old and still seeking environmental signals to know if we should fight or flight or freeze so we don’t get eaten by a lion on the savanna. Our amygdala, which controls this function, is a collection of cells located near the base of the brain and is our first environmental filter. Thus, our tool kit that our ancestry relied on still drives our subconscious.
Scientists who study epigenetics — how DNA expression changes over time without physically altering — understand that generational trauma affects human instincts. Humans know to run when a lion approaches, as fight or freeze are less effective. If the goal is preserving one’s life, we inherently know this and relive the experience as a déjà vu over and over again subconsciously. The executive decision making of the prefrontal cortex is basically powered off. We repeat many of our actions until we can break the cycle by bypassing the amygdala’s instinct.
The hardwired brain runs automatically. This is what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman describes as two separate systems of mental processing in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. System One is fast, unconscious, effortless, and automatic. System One makes quick decisions, which are often mental shortcuts we’ve created through evolution, or thinking we’ve been in the situation before. System Two, however, is slow, deliberate, conscious, effortful, and controlled.(1) The key to innovation is using System Two more effectively through mental models, philosophy, reading, case studies, and learning how others handle the situation. If System One takes over in a crisis, we have fewer options to respond. There is a lack of creativity when the brain is caught in a state of trauma, a paradox of choice, analysis paralysis, and/or the left-brain analytical mode has taken over automatically.
At the same time, trauma, friction, and conflict force innovation. For example, the coronavirus pandemic may be the biggest digital transformation in history, outperforming any other long-term corporate digital transformation initiative in just a few months. The pandemic forced companies to transform due to organizational stress, and they quickly shifted to remote working, video conferencing, digital sales, and companies sought technology solutions for nearly everything. Crisis often invigorates innovation.
(1) Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York, 2011)