Skip to Main Content
Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation

The Brains of the operation: How neuroscience changes thinking about innovation and leadership in organizations

  • Tracy Robinson
  • |
  • Oct 20, 2017
The Brains of the operation: How neuroscience changes thinking about innovation and leadership in organizations

The paradox of innovation is that the need to adapt and the need for stability exist simultaneously. Innovation allows an organization to adapt to the changing environment but it creates instability at the same time, which can be a threat. Fonseca’s description of these simultaneous and conflicting forces is very similar to the way neuroscientist Daniel Siegel conceives the tension between the hemispheres of the human brain; left side linear-stability-seeking and right side holistic-possibility-seeking. Siegel contends that integration between the two hemispheres is the requirement for personal well-being. If the human brain experiences well-being from the integration between stability and adaptability, the question for organizations is how can we use whole-brain thinking to create more adaptability in the workplace?

Based on past experience, humans can get stuck and become less receptive to change as adults. Insightful, whole-brain thinking can help bridge the gap between the dominant paradigm and being open to something new. Understanding this cognitive phenomenon can help leaders and organizations adapt and progress.

Insight is a significant neural event that enables a leap in understanding and results in a new perspective. The latest evidence on insight theory comes from neuroscientists Kounios and Beeman who describe insight in phases (Figure 1).The immersion phase is when an individual engages in attempting to solve a complex problem. If the problem cannot be solved within the existing knowledge paradigm, the solver gets stuck in the impasse stage, and this immersion and impasse cycle is where many linear-stability-seeking organizations collectively remain.

Figure 1. Phases of insight, adapted from “The Eureka Factor” (Kounios & Beeman, 2015)

For an individual who is adaptable and open to change, the next two phases are exploratory. The conscious problem solver enters the phase called distraction - pursuing rest, exercise, entertainment, inspiration, or meditation. Meanwhile, the complex problem solver enters the subconscious incubation phase. This is an interesting phenomenon that allows the brain to manage other daily activities while simultaneously extrapolating the problem to less obvious solutions. It is a remarkable adaptation. If the holistic-possibility-seeking part of the brain finds a solution to the problem, it suddenly emerges in the conscious mind as an insight. The appearance of an “aha moment” is often accompanied by surprise, joy or relief and the resonant feeling that something is right about the answer, even if the logic mind has not caught on yet.

Can this neurological understanding change the way we view innovation in organizations? There are two famous and foundational theories that articulate innovation in communities: Rogers and Kuhn. These concepts are better known as Diffusion of Innovations and Paradigm Shift and are widely cited in organizational literature.The visual for Diffusion of Innovation is a well-known normal curve including early adopters, early majority, late majority and the laggards (Figure 2). This is a very good model to describe the stability seeking part of how an innovation moves through an organization.

Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift, on the other hand, describes what has to happen to create an innovation in a system, the adaptation and instability caused by an idea that cannot exist under the normal curve.

Based on the earlier premise that an organizational innovation might share qualities with an insight in the human brain, I overlapped these two theories together to get a sense of what the visual representation of this integrated or whole-brained community could look?

Figure 2. Paradigm Shift and Diffusion of Innovations Overlapped

The new visual nicely represents the key parts of Kuhn’s theory on top of Rogers’ visual as points A, B and C. Point A represents the persistent anomaly that cannot be explained using existing logic and experience. Point B represents the flip that happens at the moment of insight when a new perspective is gained. Much like the gestalt puzzles of two images like a duck/rabbit shown here that trick the eyes into seeing one way or another. Point C is, of course, the point of destabilization that comes along with a new idea in an old system.

Figure 3. Gestalt – duck/rabbit

Still, I was not quite satisfied with my mash-up. I didn’t see how this new visual would communicate anything more meaningful to leaders in organizations who were trying to understand whole-brain thinking. Then I found the work on health care innovations by Trish Greenhalgh and team. In a seminal article on innovation in health care systems, the team created a diagram that was referred to as Metaphor for Spread. The diagram shows phases and enablers from a systems point of view, rather than an individual perspective.

This was my own “aha moment”. I suddenly saw that if I mapped Greenhalgh’s metaphor for spread over what I had already fused between Rogers and Kuhn, I could describe something practical for leaders to get a peak inside the black box of change that is informed by neuroscience.

Figure 4. Merging Shift, Diffusion and Spread in “The Adaptive Organization” by Tracy Robinson

Now we could have an understanding of the systems that have to be engaged as an innovation moves through an organization and how we could prime the natural, social, technical and managerial structures to better understand their role in the adaptation. Although each of these visual models are generalizing how an organization innovates, the hope is that organizations that understand innovation as a tension between stability and possibility can become adaptive organizations. This is part of the function of insight in the brain because it allows humans to adapt to new and complex problems. As described earlier, an insight causes a paradigm shift in the stability-seeking left-brain and the problem-solver develops new perspective. In the same way, viewing an organization through a neuroscientific lens can foster new awareness of the organization as an adaptive system.

Leaders have to adapt to increasingly complex change environments. They are essentially “the brains” of the operation. Since no environment is more complex than the human brain, it can be productive to demonstrate how brain activity can help to confirm and inform the theoretical constructs about innovation in a community.

Merging innovation, shift and spread into one visual proposes a more complete way to understand the phases and types of improvement and how they occur. In this way, more of the theory emerges where innovation is a response to some anomaly with the dominant paradigm. When conditions are favorable and supported, exponential growth can be achieved. This is followed by a new mature paradigm gaining presence while the old one makes room or subsides.

Tracy (Trae) Robinson supports research in the Department of Paediatrics. She recently completed her MSc in Health Promotion at Western University. Her interests include coaching, leadership, and knowledge mobilization.


  • Health Innovation