On Innovation: Doing What Others Say Can’t Be Done

I recently read an interesting article in Entrepreneur magazine discussing a theory of innovation by Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast and a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

Berns argues that innovation occurs in brains that are adept at not just creative insights, but also at overriding the fears that come along with them – such as facing public ridicule and criticism.  

Iconoclastic thinking – defined by Berns as doing what others say can’t be done – demands a brain that functions differently from most people in three areas: perception, the fear response, and social intelligence.

Berns explains that what we perceive in any given moment is filtered by habit, beliefs, and the influence of others.  “When you look at problems you tend to perceive them in well-worn paths in ways you’ve perceived them before.  That’s the first roadblock in innovating, overcoming your perceptual biases.  Most people work in the same place every day.  We get used to thinking in certain ways in certain environments.”

To break the rut of perception, Berns suggests shaking up your routine, traveling or doing things you haven’t done before.  Getting away from the ties and people that bind opens up possibilities that would go unimagined in your normal routine.

Innovators also have the ability to overcome the fear response.  The key to overcoming this is reframing negative scenarios.  “Uncertainty always has two sides: the possibility of gain and the possibility of loss,” Berns says citing the example of a bad financial statement.  “If the first instinct is, ‘I’m losing money, I gotta fire someone,’ that’s a fear response, and that will lead to contraction of your business.  Or you can look at the other side of the equation. ‘Let’s think about how we can increase revenue.’  That’s a more positive frame.”

Finally, the third area in how innovators think differently is in social intelligence.  The iconoclast’s brain not only tolerates a high degree of ambiguity, it also deals well with the slings and arrows of public disapproval.

To counter a feeling of social isolation Berns suggests talking to innovators who have been there.

I thought his insights were very good.  Check out the entire article here:


You can purchase his book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientists Reveals How to Think Differently on Amazon.com by clicking the book cover below.

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