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Advances in neuroscience, like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), newly applied statistical techniques, and brain mapping, are helping us to better understand the brain and how working environments can be made more 'brain-friendly' for employees.

How this sort of neuroleadership contributes to better innovation is still relatively under-researched, but greater awareness about how neurological and physiological processes affect management and leadership is likely to have real implications for innovation. It is conceivable that creating a more 'brain-friendly' workplace might have generalisable benefits for employees, including their ability to innovate.

How is neuroleadership being used as an innovation method?

There are good reasons for innovation managers and leaders to pay attention to neuroleadership. While still in its infancy, the field has been praised for its highly interdisciplinary approach, and its blending of psychological and neuroscientific findings with organisational research to inform best practice in leadership and management.

Brain-based management approaches could improve our understanding of how creative thinking is enabled, how rewards should be structured, the role of emotion in decision making, and the opportunities and pitfalls of multitasking – all things that can help foster an innovative culture.

Scientists have now identified as many as 15 brain networks and subnetworks, and the discovery of how one of these core neural systems behaves has exciting implications for managers and leaders looking to support innovation.

The 'default' or 'task negative' network has been described by researchers Adam Waytz and Malia Mason as 'groundbreaking' because it shows that even when people are not concentrating on specific tasks, a distinct network of brain regions still fires up.

For Waytz and Mason, this 'discovery leads us to believe that having unfocused free time is an important (and underutilised) factor in breakthrough innovations'. They cite several examples of companies that are making use of 'task free time' as a way to catalyse innovation.

One example is Google, with its famous '20 per cent time' policy, under which the company’s engineers in principle get a day a week to work on whatever they want. Other examples include marketing firm Maddock Douglas, which gives employees 100 to 200 hours a year to work on anything that interests them, and consulting firm BrightHouse, which offers its staff five 'Your Days' a year to reflect and simply free-associate.

Thanks to advances in brain research, a new interdisciplinary field, neuroleadership, is helping leaders understand their own brains and those of their colleagues in a manner that could unlock innovation.

One method for applying neuroleadership is SCARF, an acronym for ‘status’, ‘certainty’, ‘autonomy’, ‘relatedness’ and ‘fairness’. This model was developed by David Rock, a key leader in the field of neuroleadership, to reflect ways in which human brains are hard-wired to think about threats and rewards.

It is intended to help managers take active steps to understand these principles and mitigate the likelihood of them having detrimental impacts on individual employees or across the organisation. Disregarding these core brain drivers could have negative implications for innovation – with employees experiencing impaired analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving.

The humanitarian organisation Mercy Corps has used an adapted version of SCARF to help managers learn about innovation. David Evans of Mercy Corps says, 'We established a programme based in neuroscience that we could roll out to all 5000 team members'. The biological basis of the method was a plus, as this might make it more applicable to the diverse range of employees in the organisation, in contrast to other techniques which might be more culturally specific.

It is conceivable that creating a more 'brain-friendly' workplace might have benefits for employees, including their ability to innovate.

Healthy scepticism

Like most new trends, neuroleadership has keen supporters: early adopters who are wholly convinced of the benefits that brain-based management can bring to their organisation. Some, like Rock, see a bright future for the field: 'I believe that neuroscience research will be a significant factor in reshaping how we define leadership, select leaders and design leadership development programs. Already there is a journal focused on the neuroscience of leadership, post graduate education, and an annual summit about this field'.

Chris Pirie, General Manager of Learning for Microsoft, is similarly hopeful about the future of neuroleadership for companies. 'We’re going to see continued progress in neuroscience to inform our understanding of how we learn and how the brain maps new knowledge and moves it from short-term to long-term memory. [...] I believe we will soon see diagnostic tools to help evaluate costly corporate learning programs against such standards and tools to help learning experience designers design for maximum impact.'

Others, like Naila Kuhlmann and Chelsie Kadgien, neuroscience scholars at McGill University, are more cautious about the potential consequences of applying findings from the field prematurely and with 'blind optimism'. Raising concerns about methodological validity, they note that as a field pitching itself at professionals outside of the neuroscientific/neuroimaging community, 'neuroleadership has been largely based on optimistic inferences from prior studies that may have low reproducibility.'

To advance the field, they, 'encourage continued, but measured, enthusiasm on the interdisciplinary endeavours in neuroleadership, and suggest that researchers work directly with neuroscientists to design hypothesis-driven and carefully planned studies, placing the results into a broader, multi-level view of behaviour and cognition'.

We’re going to see continued progress in neuroscience to inform our understanding of how we learn and how the brain maps new knowledge and moves it from short-term to long-term memory.

Chris Pirie, General Manager of Learning for Microsoft

The future

In the past there have been high hopes that the findings from neuroscience research will unlock the secrets of management and leadership. Too often these hopes have been fuelled by over-simplified media reports that have done little more than line the pockets of neuroconsultants.

But now, a combination of advances in imaging, statistical techniques, and social science is starting to build more solid foundations for the nascent field of neuroleadership. It is too soon to tell whether neuroleadership is climbing Gartner’s slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity, or whether this is yet more hype that will lead to a plummet into the trough of disillusionment.