Do you want a job that offers some sort of stability without the soul-sucking repetition you equate with a 9–5 job? Maybe you want the intellectual challenge, problem-solving rush, and “we beat the odds” euphoria of doing the impossible AND to stay in a certain city or just have a steady paycheck and benefits for a few years.
Then you, my friend, should be an Intrapreneur.
A career in innovation is not for the faint of heart. While start-ups and entrepreneurs get all the press, intrapreneurs ride a similar roller-coaster of uncertainty.
According to research conducted by Innovation Leader, the average tenure of executives in innovation specific roles is 4.4 years. Tenures get are a bit longer for VPs (5.4 year) and a bit shorter for Manager (3.3 years).
This data is consistent with my decades of experience working with corporate innovators, also known as intrapreneurs.
- Year 1, senior executives jump on the innovation bandwagon and create lots of activities (shark tanks, ideation sessions), establish innovation and corporate venture capital (CVC) teams, and proclaim their commitment to innovation loudly and broadly.
- Year 2, the fanfare dies down, the events have become memories, and the teams are hard at work generating opportunities and testing new businesses.
- Year 3, the $500M silver bullet has yet to manifest, the company has yet to be described as the “Apple of [industry],” and the attention and investment once dedicated to innovation gets re-routed to the core business.
- Year 4, it’s back to business as usual.
But for those brave souls who, like me and like my clients, decide to strap in and ride the ride…Welcome! Here are 4 tips to help you have the best and safest possible corporate innovation career
1. Build Your Internal Network
Yes, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of all that is new and happening in the market and the best way to do that is by building and maintain your external network of advisors, experts, and thought leaders.
But, as an intrapreneur, you also need to keep your finger on the pulse of all that is new and happening in your company. Invest time in building relationships outside of your immediate team. Reach out across functions and business units to meet people, build trust, and share ideas. Over time, these connections will become the advocates and sponsors you need to break through organizational barriers, sources of vital information about evolving corporate priorities, and even guides to new roles in the (highly likely) event that your innovation group gets “wound down.”
2. Show off transferrable skills
It’s easy to get pegged as the “Innovation Person” in the group. The person who gets called in when a team wants to “be creative” or faces a particularly difficult problem that requires “thinking differently.” There’s nothing wrong with being the Go To resource for these things but it makes you very expendable when the organization decides that it needs to “get back to its roots” and “return to what made us successful.”
Instead, identify and share the skills that are at the heart of what makes you great at innovation, the skills that create value. Perhaps you’re able to talk to a customer for 30 minutes and learn things never before conceived by R&D, offer to do that for another team or teach others your skills. Perhaps you’re able to simplify and communicate the most complex topics, offer to help someone with their presentation.
Sharing the skills that make you a great innovator and showing others how to apply them in their “not innovative” jobs not only helps establish a culture of innovation, it establishes you as an essential resource no matter where innovation falls on the priority list.
3. Don’t go Stealth
It’s tempting for intrapreneurs, like entrepreneurs, to work in Stealth Mode. I’ve heard lots of reasons for this:
- We don’t have results yet
- Management should stay focused on the core because we need the money made there to fund our work
- If they don’t know what we’re doing, they can’t stop us.
This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Not only is “out of sight, out of mind” a very real thing in companies, it ignores the essential fact that start-ups in Stealth Mode are “hiding” from the market, not their investors.
Intrapreneurs need to stay on management’s radar screens. They need to generate and communicate results, even if it’s primarily learnings, on a regular basis. They need to consistently prove to management that they are as important to the short- and long-term prospects of the company as existing businesses.
The best evidence of a manager’s priorities are the appointments on her calendar. If you’re not on there, you’re not a priority.
4. Channel your inner Gambler
For an intrapreneur, there is no better advice than the following:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Change is hard for everyone and it always takes longer than you think it should. It’s normal to feel frustrated. The key is to know when your frustration has evolved to cynicism and, even worse, burn-out.
Take breaks. Whether it’s a night off, a weekend away, a two weeks’ vacation, or a several month sabbatical. Step away from the table, unplug the devices, and rest. After all,
“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep.”
Even though Innovation should be viewed as a discipline, on par with Marketing and Finance, in terms of corporate capabilities and operations, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Until that day comes, corporate innovation will remain a roller coaster that only the bravest dare to ride. Hopefully, these tips make that ride longer than just a few years.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius
That, in a nutshell, is what Your Brain At Work is all about . By blending snapshot stories, scientific and medical research, and practical examples, David Rock lays out a convincing and easy to read argument that, by understanding the workings and limitations of our brains, we can better understand others, overcome challenges, and navigate our world.
While this book is certainly written for a mass audience, innovators especially should give it a read because of what it has to say about insights, ideas, and driving change.
We’ve all had those A-Ha! moments. Those brief seconds when we’re doing nothing of import (like taking a shower) and suddenly, without warning, an insight pops into our heads.
Often those insights are an answer to a question or a solution to a problem that has been plaguing us. We’ve encountered a new challenge and we know that the usual solutions, procedures, and answers won’t work, but we don’t know what will.
What we need is an insight — “not a logical solution,” Rock explains, “but one that recombines knowledge (and maps in your brain) in a whole new way.”
The reason why insights pop into our heads when we’re doing nothing is that our brain is, in fact, doing quite a lot. Studies conducted by Dr. Stellan Ohlsson, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explain why this is, “when facing a new problem, people apply strategies that worked in prior experience. This works well if the new problem is similar to the old problem. However, in many situations, this is not the case, and the solution from the past gets in the way, stopping better solutions from arising… Instead, the projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited.”
By not thinking of anything in particular, we’re actually suppressing the usual answers and creating space for new answers (insights) to emerge. And luckily, we don’t have to spend our days in the shower to make this happen.
How to Create Insights:
- Focus on the big picture: Dr. Mark Beeman, an associate professor at Northwestern University and an expert in the neuroscience of insights, found that when people solve a problem using insights, their right anterior lobe (a region in the brain’s right hemisphere) becomes more active than usual. Because the right hemisphere is primarily responsible for identifying holistic connections, keeping it active is key to producing insights. However, when we focus on the details of a problem, instead of the big picture, we activate the left hemisphere this decreasing activity in the right hemisphere and reducing the conditions required for insight.
- Get a fresh perspective: As Dr. Ohlsson’s research shows, the more we know about a problem or a situation, the more likely we are to rely on past experience for a solution. It can be incredibly hard to get out of our own way so, instead, we should seek out people with different experiences and perspectives for their input. Even if they don’t have the perfect answer, simply listening to a different perspective can help create the space needed for insights to emerge
- Have fun. Beeman’s research has also revealed a strong correlation between emotional states and insight. As Rock explains, “Increasing happiness increases the likelihood of insight, while increasing anxiety decreases the likelihood of insight. This relates to your ability to perceive subtle signals. When you are anxious, there is greater baseline activation and more overall electrical activity, which makes it harder for you to perceive subtle signals.” Quite simply, if you’re happy, you’re able to pick up subtle pieces of information that can be used to create brilliant insights.
Throughout the book, Rock uses a small theater as a metaphor to explain how the brain works.
Imagine that your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the cortex (the curly gray outer covering of your brain) that sits just behind your forehead and that Is responsible for most of our decision-making and problem-solving activity, is a stage. The stage is small, it can hold only a handful of people at a time, and it needs A LOT of lighting (energy) to operate (think).
In the theater are actors, pieces of information from the outside world, and the audience, information from our internal worlds (thoughts, memories, etc.).
YOU are the director and you can move actors (external info) and audience members (internal info) on or off the stage at any given time to accomplish the following:
- Understand a new idea — put an actor (external info) on the stage and see how it interacts with the audience (info already in your head)
- Make a decision — put several actors on stage and compare them to each other
- Recall information — bring an audience member on stage
- Memorize — move actors off-stage and put them in the audience
- Inhibit thoughts — move actors off stage
Understanding how your brain works, and that you can control it, provides insights into how to get the most out of it on a daily basis AND how to get the most out of others’ brains when you need to — like during an ideation session
How to Generate Better Ideas
- Start in the morning: The pre-frontal cortex is energy-hungry so the more your work it, the more physically and mentally drained you become. Doing creative work early in the day means that you’re starting with all your available energy
- Tell stories about people: When explaining a problem to people, it’s tempting to lay out all the facts. But “studies have shown that when you give people a logic problem to solve, they do so dramatically faster than when the problem is explained in terms of people interacting rather than in terms of disembodied conceptual ideas.” This is why personas, photos, and videos are so powerful during ideation, the move our thinking away from the conceptual (e.g. “how can we increase revenue?”) to the personal (e.g. “how can we better serve Claire the Customer?”)
- Provide diverse, analogous, and unexpected example solutions to spur ideation: “Picturing something you have not yet seen is going to take a lot more energy and effort,” Rock writes. “This partly explains why people spend more time thinking about problems (things they have seen) than solutions (things they have never seen and taking breaks gives you the opportunity to recharge so that you can continue the creative work.” Give people examples of solutions so that they can shift their thinking away from problems AND suppress their instinct to focus on existing solutions to the new problem they’re facing
We’ve all heard the clichés — “Get comfortable being uncomfortable” and “The only thing that is certain is uncertainty” and “The only thing that is constant is change.” But none of them make us feel better when everything around us is changing and, especially when we are being asked to change.
The reason for that is, according to neuroscientists, “because uncertainty feels, to the brain, like a threat to your life.”
It’s easy for innovators, people who feel it is their mission to drive change, to forget this when we propose new ideas or procedures. We are confident that we’ve done the work required to make a thoughtful and correct proposal that improves a product, process, or situation and are dumbfounded when we meet with resistance.
While we’ve worked hard on our idea, we’ve forgotten to work hard to understand how our audience’s brains will react. Specifically, whether the people we are presenting to may experience threats in one or more of the following domains:
- Status: Will I be perceived as less than other people?
- Certainty: Am I being asked to do things differently?
- Autonomy: Will I lose control or decision-making authority?
- Relatedness: Will I lose my connection to others?
- Fairness: Were my expectations not met?
Anticipating possible reactions in any and all of these domains, and addressing them directly or indirectly is critical to creating and sustaining change
How to Create Change
- Proactively address and reduce threats: Act humbly and acknowledge someone’s position and role to reduce threats to status, Set clear expectations and talk openly about the future to increase certainty. Let others own key activities and make timely and clear decisions to promote autonomy. Be authentic and real in all of your communications to reinforce relatedness. Keep your promises and quickly address broken ones in order to promote a perception (and reality) of fairness.
- Set goals and provide rewards: Setting goals as they relate to any of the five items above (stats, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness) and prime people’s brains to look for evidence that they are progressing towards those goals. Adding in a reward for achieving the goals further improves the likelihood that change will occur because it keeps “the expectation of a primary reward in sight…(which) will lift their moods and improve their thinking.”
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat: “Real change requires repetition,” explains Rock. You’re asking people to stop doing something they’ve been doing for a long time and to start doing something different. That isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s certainly not going to happen based on even the most compelling data-based argument (how many of us eat as many vegetables, exercise as often, or floss as frequently as we should?). Instead, change happens because we are reminded of it, it is reinforced, and we are rewarded over and over and over again.
These lessons and actions only skim the surface of the interesting and useful insights in Your Brain at Work. But to learn more, you’ll just have to buy it.
“What do you plan to do on vacation?” my friend asked.
“…And it will be amazing.”
We live in a world that confuses activity with achievement so I should not have been surprised that the idea of deliberately doing nothing stunned my friend into silence.
After all, when people say, “I wish I had nothing to do” they usually mean “I wish I could choose what I do with my time.” And, when they do have the opportunity to choose, very few choose to do nothing.
Why does the idea of doing nothing make us so uncomfortable?
To put it bluntly, busy-ness is a status symbol.
In their paper, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” professors Silvia Bellezza (Columbia Business School), Neeru Paharia (Georgetown University), and Anat Keinan (Harvard University), wrote that people’s desire to be perceived as time-starved is
“driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.”
We didn’t always believe this.
For most of human history, we’ve had a pretty balanced view of the need for both work and leisure. Aristotle argued that virtue was obtainable through contemplation, not through endless activity. Most major religions call for a day of rest and reflection. Even 19th-century moral debates, as recorded by historian EO Thompson, recognized the value of hard work AND the importance of rest.
So what happened?
While it’s easy to say that we have to work more because of the demands of our jobs, the data says otherwise. In fact, according to a working paper by Jonathan Gershuny, a time-expert based on the UK, actual time spent at work has not increased since the 1960s.
The actual reason may be that we want to work more. According to economist Robert Frank, those who identify as workaholics believe that:
“building wealth…is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
We choose to spend time working because Work — “the job itself, the psychic benefits of accumulating money, the pursuit of status, and the ability to afford the many expensive enrichments of an upper-class lifestyle” according to an article in The Atlantic — is what we find most fulfilling.
It’s not that I like working, I just don’t like wasting time.
We tend to equate doing nothing with laziness, apathy, a poor work ethic, and a host of other personality flaws and social ills. But what if that’s not true.
What if, in the process of doing nothing, we are as productive as when we do something?
Science is increasingly showing this to be the case.
Multiple fMRI studies have revealed the existence of the default mode network (DMN), a large-scale brain network that is most active when we’re day-dreaming. Researchers at the University of Southern California argue that
“downtime is, in fact, essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics — processes that depend on the DMN.”
The results of harnessing the power of your DMN are immense:
More creativity. The research discussed in Scientific American suggests that DMN is more active in creative people. For example, according to Psychology Today:
- The most recorded song of all time, “Yesterday” by The Beatles, was ‘heard’ by Paul McCartney as he was waking up one morning. The melody was fully formed in his mind, and he went straight to the piano in his bedroom to find the chords to go with it, and later found words to fit the melody.
- Mozart described how his musical ideas ‘flow best and most abundantly.’ when he was alone ‘traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep… Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them.’
- Tchaikovsky described how the idea for a composition usually came ‘suddenly and unexpectedly… It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.’
More productivity. According to an essay in The New York Times, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
Less burnout. Regardless of how many hours you work, consider this: researchers have found that it takes 25 minutes to recover from a phone call or an e-mail. On average, we are interrupted every 11 minutes which means that we can never catch up, we’re always behind.
That feeling of always being behind leads to burn-out which the World Health Organization officially recognized as a medical condition defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and manifests with the following symptoms:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Doing nothing, quieting our minds and not focusing on any particular task, can actually help reset our bodies systems, quieting the release of stress chemicals, slowing our heart rates, and improving our mental and physical energy
Better health. Multiple studies indicate that idleness “produces many health benefits including, but not limited to, reduced heart rate, better digestion, improvements in mood, and a boost in overall emotional well-being — which, of course, affects everything on a biochemical and physiological level, thereby serving as a major deciding factor on whether or not we fall ill, and/or remain ill. Mental downtime also replenishes glucose and oxygen levels in the brain, and allows our brains to process and file things, which leaves us feeling more rested and clear-headed, promotes a stronger sense of self-confidence, and…more willing to we trust change.”
Fine, you convinced me. How can I do nothing?
There are the usual suspects — vacations, meditation, and physical exercise — but, if you’re anything like me, the thought of even finding 5 minutes to listen to a meditation app is so overwhelming that I never even start.
An easier place to start, in my experience, is in intentionally working nothing into the moments that are already “free.” Here are three of my favorite ways to work a bit of nothing into my day.
Make the Snooze button work for you. When my alarm goes off, I instinctively hit the Snooze button because, I claim, it is my first and possibly only victory of the day. It’s also a great way to get 9 minutes of thoughtful quiet nothingness in which I can take a few deep breaths, scan my body for any aches and pains, and make sure that I’m calm and my mind is quiet when I get out of bed.
Stare out the window. I always place my computer next to a window so that I can stare out the window for a few minutes throughout the day and people think I’m thinking deep thoughts. Which I am. Subconsciously. Lest anyone accuse me of being lazy or unproductive while I watch the clouds roll by, I simply point them to research that shows “that individuals who took five to ten minute breaks from work to do nothing a few times a day displayed an approximately 50% increase in their ability to think clearly and creatively, thus rendering their work far more productive.
Bring the beach to you. Research from a variety of places, from the UK Census to The Journal of Coastal Zone Management, indicate that our brains and bodies benefit from time at the beach. But, if you can’t go to the beach, there are lots of ways to bring the beach to you. Perhaps the simplest is to bring more blue into your environment. Most people associate blue with feelings of calm and peace and a study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that the color blue can boost creativity. Even putting a picture of a beach (or your own personal happy place) on your desk or computer screen can trigger your brain to slow down, relax, and possibly trigger your DMN.
With so many benefits, isn’t it time you started doing more nothing?