The Science of Innovation: How to Imagine the Unimaginable

Why can certain companies see things that others can't, and what gives them the fortitude to invest in the seemingly impossible? Here are three brain-based strategies.

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By Srini Pillay • Jan 18, 2017


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Time and again, Tesla continues to prove it's a company that dares to imagine the unimaginable. From electric cars to autonomous vehicles and now -- thanks to its recent acquisition of SolarCity -- solar energy, Tesla has challenged conventional thinking at every step and produced products that once seemed impossible.

Related: Follow The Rules, Or Rewrite Them? Innovation Is Anything But Business As Usual

But isn't that the goal every entrepreneur has for his or her startup? After all, innovative firms are known for growing more quickly and achieving higher profits.

As sexy as "imagining the unimaginable" sounds, the reality is really quite daunting. Sixty-six percent of products fail within their first two years, and a remarkable 96 percent of innovations don't make back their costs. Suffice it to say, innovation is a tough sell.

So, why can certain companies see things that others can't, and what gives them the fortitude to invest in the seemingly impossible? Surprisingly, the answers to these questions may call for more introspective thinking than you'd think. Startups, after all, are made up of people, and people have brains.

If you want to imagine the unimaginable, then, leverage the following three brain-based strategies:

1. Use imagery.

Observation alone is insufficient. Startups should deliberately add imagination and imagery to their tool kits. This is how companies such as Amazon are able to see into the future; they constantly ask, "What if?" while pairing futuristic tech trends with wild imaginations.

Making a mental movie of a desired outcome aids execution because imagery warms up the action brain. Multiple studies confirm that training stroke patients to imagine moving slowed or paralyzed parts of their bodies can actually improve movement in those areas, especially when the patients concentrate intensely on those images.

So, for your business, start by imagining what problem your startup will solve; then, fill in the details of how that will happen. Note that each detail should be an image -- not just a narrative. The more vivid the image, the more likely you are to stimulate youre "action brain" to start working.

Related: 6 Habits That Turn Dreams Into Reality

2. Question "reality."

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, explained in his book that innovation is often stunted by hidden forces. For startups, an overreliance on data can easily become one of these roadblocks. Data may accurately reflect historical trends, but it does not always represent the present moment, nor does it necessarily predict the future.

Consider this example from the medical realm: When radiologists, in a study, were asked to analyze a routine chest x-ray, 60 percent failed to realize a collarbone was missing. Why? Because the data they were familiar with had subconsciously trained them to expect to see one.

Interesting fact: A mere 1 in 1 million humans have the condition that can cause the absence of a collarbone.

Given that humans are prone to misunderstanding or misusing data, then, why rely on it? Instead, avoid prematurely anchoring your startup's sailboat of innovation because you've embraced the fallacy of "reality." Appraise all existing data with initial skepticism, and always test vital assumptions before putting them into practice.

3. De-stress.

Stress cements bad habits in the brain and prevents people from embracing new patterns of thinking. Throughout history, it's been known to cause even the most prolific business leaders to make unwise decisions on behalf of their companies.

This is why it's crucial that startups learn how to destress. The same way you would set aside time to refuel your car or eat your lunch, set aside time for companywide relaxation and mental refueling.

You could consider something as simple as meditation classes for your employees -- similar to what companies like Google and Apple do -- or you could get creative and host monthly "anything goes" parties.

At such parties, workers may dress as they wish (within reason, of course) and unwind in a designated "safe zone" that allows them to identify, explore and dispel the stressors that often derail the brain.

Related: 5 Ways to Reduce Stress for Your Employees

Imagining the unimaginable is clearly within your biological reach. Data and trends can tell you only so much about innovation and success. Harnessing the brainpower of your entire team, however, may help you unlock the true potential of your startup and create unbridled growth and prosperity.

Srini Pillay

Founder and CEO, Neurobusiness Group

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, the award-winning author of numerous books and the creator of a series of videos on "Managing Depression in the Workplace" for LinkedIn Learning.

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